Twenty-six seconds. Every twenty-six seconds a student drops out of school in Akron, Ohio. It was this startling statistic that led basketball superstar LeBron James to start the I Promise School in his hometown. In the Quibi documentary series I Promise, viewers are invited inside the walls of the highly publicized experimental school.
A public school designed to serve students who fall in the lowest 25th percentile of the education system, the facility is clearly a necessary lifeline for those slipping through the cracks. Unlike charter schools that can refuse students simply because of their marks or their family’s financial standings, the I Promise School openly embraces those who are struggling both academically and personally. Acutely aware that a student’s life outside of school greatly impacts their performance within it, the school has built in “wrap around services” that provide parents and guardians with everything from child care assistance to General Education Development (GED) resources to access to perishable goods.
Considering the amount of resources available, one can understand the excitement and hope that radiates from the students introduced at the beginning of I Promise. As if entering Willy Wonka’s magical factory for the first time, each child is the winner of an enrollment lottery system. Optimism overflows as the wide-eyed students are greeted by smiling teachers. They recite the school pledge beside a wall decorated with James’s numerous sneakers. While LeBron James’s name brings obvious attention to the school, director Marc Levin makes the students and teachers the true focal point of his series.
Following various grade 3 and 4 students and staff over the course of a year, Levin’s series quickly establishes just how steep the uphill climb will be for all involved. Obligated to adhere to state guidelines for public schools, a significant part of the success at the I Promise School will be gauged by how the students perform on the Measure Academic Progress (MAP) standardized test. Complicating matters further is that the students, who are all reading and writing below their grade levels, must essentially make up a year’s worth of material in a matter of weeks.
As the MAP test, which is administered in both the fall and the spring, lingers in the air like an approaching storm, I Promise explains why the test is the least of the students’ worries. Though they may have be deemed misfits or lost causes in their former schools, Levin shows just how much these students are dealing with even before they reach the school doors.
Despite ranging in age from 9 to 10 years-old, many of the youths featured in the series carry more trauma than some adults experience in an entire lifetime. Nate dreams of being a police officer but is filled with anxiety. Not only was his father killed at age 25, but he witnessed firsthand as the S.W.A.T. team raided his uncle’s home. Now, when faced with a school task with which he is uncomfortable, Nate employs a fight or flight strategy to deflect from his academic shortcomings.
Just as Nate’s behavioral disruptions expose deeper emotional wounds, third grader Dae’Shaunna wears her trauma on her sleeve for all to see. Living with her grandfather while her father was in jail and having assisted her grandmother as Alzheimer’s sisease slowly took her life, Dae’Shaunna carries the fiery tongue of women well beyond her years. Cloaking her fear of abandonment in her need for physical dominance over her peers, her silent cries for help are deafening.
Levin also introduces us to those who often internalize their pain. Individuals like Scout, who frequently tends to her mother’s health ailments that stem from a bruised brain, and Friday the 13th horror fan Vincent, who lives with a rare spinal syndrome, further highlight the vast spectrum of issues that the teachers must deal with.
What makes I Promise such an emotional and inspiring work is that it exposes how ill equipped the American School system is when it comes to dealing with those who need help the most. In a traditional school a student like Randy would be dismissed as problematic for having his third outburst in a week. However, when the Vice Principal at I Promise School explains that Randy and his mom are dealing with another sudden bout of homeliness, the child’s tears and piercing wails take on a new meaning.
What could have been a glorified advertisement for the I Promise School reveals itself to be a rather thoughtful exploration of a broken education system in need of drastic changes. One cannot help but feel for the teachers at the school who realize that many of the methods they were taught at other public schools, regarding dealing with at risk youth, are ineffectual. I Promise shows that true educational reform cannot be done within the existing framework. The series champions embracing new methods, even if means going through several trials and tribulations until you get it right.
I Promise is now streaming on Quibi.