Sportsman: LeBron James (cont.)
Harris Elementary School, the three-story brick building in North Hill where James used to play basketball with custodians before class, has been shuttered. SWAT teams use the halls for practice, and bullet casings litter the hardwood floors. James went to third grade at Harris and stayed for fourth, but he missed 80 days that year because he and his mother kept moving. Akron is filled with children growing up just as James did. Eighty-four percent of the city's public elementary school students live in poverty. James tried to help with his annual Bikeathon. Once a summer, for five years, he passed out AK-Rowdy bikes to 300 underprivileged kids and then rode with them through the streets. He even established a bike kitchen downtown where the kids could go for free repairs. "But that was it," says Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation. "It was one and done."
As a spokesman for State Farm's 26 Second Initiative, James learned that a student drops out of high school every 26 seconds, and he asked Campbell what they could do. Studies show that children come to the first major fork in their educational road around third grade. "There is a lot of research that tells us where kids are at third grade in terms of reading level [indicates] where they will be at 30," says David James, superintendent of Akron public schools. In April 2011, LeBron introduced Wheels for Education, and his foundation contacted every incoming third-grader in the Akron public school system deemed at-risk. They all received an invitation from "Mr. LeBron" to join his new program. "I was the same as them," James says. "I could have gone either way."
Last year 300 third-graders across 30 elementary schools signed up. This year 216 followed. To become Wheels for Education members, the students must complete a two-week "fall camp," and at the end James returns to Akron and gives each of them an AK-Rowdy bike. He also makes them recite "The Promise," which they shout in high-pitched voices as if it were the Pledge of Allegiance. "I promise: To go to school. To do all of my homework. To listen to my teachers because they will help me learn. To ask questions and find answers. To never give up, no matter what. To always try my best. To be helpful and respectful to others. To live a healthy life by eating right and being active. To make good choices for myself. To have fun. And above all else, to finish school!" In return James promises to be a positive role model and help where he can.
Every student in the Akron public schools is required to wear a collared shirt. James's students wear shirts emblazoned with a crown over the words the lebron james family foundation. "i promise." They wear socks with a crown logo. If they stay home for a few days, they may wake up to this voice-mail message: "Hi, it's LeBron. Your teachers and friends are missing you at school. As soon as you feel better, get back in school and get back in the game." If they ace a few assignments, they may hear this: "Hey, it's LeBron. I heard you were a superstar at school this week. You are keeping our promise, and I am so proud of you. Keep up the great work at school."
In addition to the six recorded messages, James posts weekly on a Wheels for Education website and sends letters to the kids every month or so. "I read a lot of books this summer," he wrote in August. "I love to read. Reading is important because it helps us learn new things. Even though I am not in school anymore, I still read books." He shares book recommendations from his fiancée, Savannah, and their sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce. Last spring James flew six standouts from Rankin Elementary School to Miami for the presentation of his MVP Award.
James's students attend their regular schools during the day and are then encouraged to participate in Akron After School, which runs from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. at their respective campuses and -includes one hour of reading or math instruction with a second hour of an elective: Theater, ballet, poetry, ceramics and journalism are a few of the options. Desiree Bolden, who runs Akron After School, recalls the first time she met with Campbell about Wheels for Education. "She asked if I had a wish list," Bolden says, "and I've never been asked that before." Bolden lamented the lack of technology in her classrooms. Three months later James donated 1,000 Hewlett-Packard laptops.
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, 14 of James's students were sitting on the floor in the library at Mason Community Learning Center, reading with Austin -Qualls. A senior at Akron's Firestone High, -- Qualls plans to enlist in the Navy next summer, but first he is serving as one of 19 Wheels for Education ambassadors. "I'm not doing this because LeBron is a basketball player," -- Qualls says. "I don't even watch a lot of basketball. I recognize him more for his fatherly side."
Of the 14 Wheels for Education students at Mason, only a handful come from homes with both biological parents, according to the school principal, Stephanie Churn. "These are children who are not used to having anyone in their corner," Churn says. "A lot of them have nothing to look forward to. Some of them come here for food. But they know they're LeBron's kids. That colors every single day of their lives. I realize he's a basketball hero to a lot of people, but to them he's a guardian angel. They understand what he expects of them, and they're not about to let him down." As Mason third-grader Amyah Hodoh puts it: "LeBron wants us to get to college someday, so that's what we're trying to do."