When LeBron James was roaming the hallways of Akron Public Schools as a child, bouncing from school to school, he never anticipated he’d one day open a public elementary school of his own.
But he did know he wanted to change the lives of kids just like him for generations to come.
"I think what led to this moment was the upbringing I had as a kid, period. Just being an underprivileged kid and seeing some things I wish I had, some things I didn’t have ... I think that put me in position where I said to myself, ‘If I’m ever able to be successful in any way or have any type of financial stability, then I’m going to give back,’" James said in an exclusive interview with the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com Monday afternoon at his new I Promise School.
The school, spearheaded by James and his foundation, opened Monday to 240 academically underperforming third- and fourth-graders.
And hard as administrators tried, the students had anything but a normal first day of school.
The day was just as much the first day for the kids as it was for James, who hadn’t seen the school until the doors opened to the students.
"It’s still so surreal. I’ve really got the jitters right now," said James, wearing dark-framed glasses and a gray suit, hours after doors opened.
For James, the opening of an elementary school is deeply personal. He remembers being the same age as the students in the I Promise School, changing schools so often that in fourth grade, he was absent more than 80 days.
What kept him on the right track, he said, was the care from the adults around him — including those he met when he started playing sports.
"This age, I believe, is a turning point for either going one way or the other. I didn’t know what was next for me, but the guidance I got after that moment from family and Little League coaches is the reason why I’m here today," James said. "When I was their age, I just needed some guidance. I needed someone to care."
James is striving to implement the same care into the I Promise School.
Since he announced the school in April of last year, James said, he’s been involved "throughout the whole journey."
He also addressed his reasons for leaving the Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers Monday, prior to the start of the ceremony opening the school.
James, who opened his I Promise School in partnership with the Akron Public Schools, said some of the allure boiled down to history.
"You know, growing up I was a Cowboys fan, a Bulls fan and a Yankees fan," James said in the three-plus-minute message to his fans. "I always felt that was one of the historic franchises. You look at the Lakers, being able to play for a historic franchise."
When James returned to the Cavs, he stated in his much-lauded letter that ran in Sports Illustrated that he wanted to retire in his home region. Monday, prior to the start of the school-opening ceremony, James said he didn’t know when that changed for him.
"Everyone grows ... I just think it’s the next step in my journey," he told the Beacon Journal. "This is where I am today, me and my family, and we all look forward to it."
The curriculum and school building at 400 W. Market St. came together at the hands of Akron Public Schools, the LeBron James Family Foundation and dozens of other community partners, but the school’s overall concept and look are both directly inspired by James.
By the afternoon, music blared from speakers outside the school’s windows. Professional athletes roamed the halls. A parade of people lined up outside and a horde of media surrounded the school. More than a dozen armed security guards and police officers covered the building grounds.
But when the doors opened at 8:45 a.m. that morning and students stepped into the building curated just for them, they had clues to expect something different — starting with the grey polo shirts they were given to wear instead of what they arrived dressed in as a first step to starting anew.
"It was magical," said Angela Whorton, an intervention specialist, about the first day. "Just to see how genuinely excited they were to start a new chapter of their life with a clean slate was beyond great."
The school includes a family resource center, where families of I Promise students can go for food, to earn their GEDs and to access a plethora of other county resources.
The curriculum aims to adopt the "We Are Family" philosophy of the LeBron James Family Foundation, infuse it with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and take into account the struggles and traumas in students’ lives to provide "social-emotional learning." It implements a year-round education for kids to retain what they learn.
LeBron James, who made his first public appearance Monday since deciding to join the Los Angeles Lakers, spearheaded the effort more than a year ago as a way to consolidate his existing I Promise Network into one building to create a lasting impact on the community.
"I think one of my long-term goals is that every kid who walks through those doors, they feel empowered, they know they have a support system, they know there’s someone that cares about them," James said in the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com interview. "I think that’s what it ultimately comes down to is that someone cares about their future. We want the next great police officer, the next great politician, the next great doctor, the next great nurse, the next great musician ... Whatever the case may be, we hope it comes out of this school."
Dog and pony show
As kids continued their first day back at school, a mass of more than 2,000 people gathered outside to watch the festivities hosted by the LeBron James Family Foundation for its partners, students and their families.
Akron’s Dave Lieberth emceed the event as James watched on a TV from inside the school with his 4-year-old daughter, Zhuri; his wife, Savannah; and his mother, Gloria.
Outside, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan and Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James addressed the crowd.
"LeBron, I don’t think we can possibly thank you enough for what you do. Even the English department has run out of words for your efforts," David James said.
Then, the Singing Angels choir sang a song before a mass of people representing community partners paraded in front of the stage.
Afterward, Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Tori Kelly made a surprise appearance and performed the song "Hallelujah."
But nothing got a reaction from the crowd like LeBron James, who stepped out during Kelly’s song in a grey suit with a trail of students in their grey polo-style shirts following behind.
Kids gazed wide-eyed at the scene as they lined up on bleachers and on the ground on either side of the stage as LeBron James addressed the crowd.
"As a kid from Akron, Ohio myself, I remember walking these streets ... I know exactly what these 240 kids are going through," LeBron James said. "I know the streets they walk, I know the trials and tribulations they go through, I know the ups and downs, I know everything that they dream about, I know all the nightmares that they have, because I’ve been there. I know exactly why they want this."
"I want people to know that these kids still have the same opportunities as everyone else, and that’s what’s important," LeBron James continued. "Us as adults have a responsibility to not let these kids down ... because those kids are our future."
Then, LeBron James watched as his mother raised the I Promise flag, and dozens of kids turned to watch him.
As parents picked up their kids after the festivities, many of the students recalled the most memorable moments of their day — which, for many, was getting to meet LeBron James himself, who walked the halls and met students.
Miracle Midder, a fourth-grader, said she was shocked to meet the basketball star and even shook his hand.
Miracle, 9, said the I Promise School is "way different" than Betty Jane elementary, where she used to attend.
"It wasn’t this big, and I didn’t get to see LeBron," Miracle said.
As the excitement over the basketball star wanes with his retreat back to California, time will tell whether students retain their excitement for the school.
But anticipation from parents over the school’s potential is likely to last as kids embark on their first year at the brand new school.
"I can’t wait to see all the things that are going to happen. I’m so proud of you," said Kiuera Booker, Miracle’s mom, as she hugged her daughter tight.
"Hey," Miracle said, "You’re wiping LeBron off!"
Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.