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Lessons from LeBron: innovation and supports in service to students

LeBron James has done his homework. As I pack my bags to visit Tanzania in support of an innovative schools initiative there, I’m thinking about his partnership with the public schools in Akron, Ohio.

Photo by Ann Blumer-LaMotte
Laura Wangsness Willemsen

LeBron James has done his homework. As I pack my bags for Tanzania, I’m thinking about his partnership with the public schools in Akron, Ohio. What does LeBron James’ work supporting kids and families in Akron have to do with the schools I’ll soon be visiting near the Serengeti, or, for that matter, some of the best educational work being done here in Minnesota? A lot, actually.

I first heard of James’ new school from reports of a Twitter kerfuffle, yet my interest was piqued in the school itself. As I read about his foundation’s work with Akron Public Schools to support the kind of holistic educational programming that teachers, educational leaders and researchers alike note works for kids and families everywhere, my respect for him grew. In addition to providing robust academic programming, the I Promise School offers on-site mental health and nutritional services for students and their families, training and psychological support for teachers, and a menu of additional services – including physical training — that demonstrates thoughtful attention to supporting students, parents, teachers and the wider Akron community. This partnership seems to truly have promise.

An innovative initiative in Tanzania

This kind of innovative work is springing up in communities around the world, including in an area of Tanzania that sits between Lake Victoria and the Serengeti. My trip there next week is to support an innovative initiative to improve educational quality in the historically underserved area called Nyamuswa. A partnership has recently been formed between a handful of public schools communities there, local and national level Tanzanian government officials, and a small education-focused nonprofit called Project Zawadi headquartered in Tanzania and St. Paul. Together, they are working to transform six public schools serving approximately 4,000 students. The thinking is that if these schools can expand their work to better support academic, vocational and social/emotional outcomes for more students, this learning can be shared with other regional schools.

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Over the next several weeks, Project Zawadi will gather a team of educational leaders from Tanzania, St. Paul Public Schools, the University of Minnesota, and my institution of Concordia University, St. Paul, in Nyamuswa to listen to teachers, parents, community members, administrators, government officials and – perhaps most important – students. Our goal is to finalize the design for what is being called the Project Zawadi Model School program. These discussions have already begun, and the work is taking a similar direction as James’ work in Akron: support and train teachers so they are better equipped to meet students’ needs; support students’ social and emotional well-being as well as academic learning; and assist families in their work of keeping kids safe, nourished and healthy.

Of course, the shape of these initiatives will vary according to context. In Akron, families have access to GED classes and job training, while families in Nyamuswa will receive home visits from counselors and sustainable agricultural training. An on-site food bank is available in Akron, and Project Zawadi has already begun partnering with other agencies to get kids healthy school lunches. They are also working to provide clean water and solar power in the schools and their affiliated teacher houses. This will help ensure that kids and teachers are healthy, that reliable power sources will support the use of technology, and that well-trained teachers are incentivized to stay in this relatively remote area of Tanzania.

I Promise teachers have every Wednesday afternoon reserved for their professional development, and Project Zawadi is working to provide training, coaching and teacher-to-teacher mentoring to support more active pedagogical approaches in classrooms. Project Zawadi is even preparing to make bicycles available to students who live far from school, just as James’ partnership has done in Akron.

Questions of sustainability and scalability

The similarities go deeper than that. Until now, the most visible efforts at holistic educational transformation have been done in schools with at least some degree of separation from the existing public systems – think the KIPP charter school movement or Oprah’s school in South Africa. While such efforts are laudable, their benefits remain concentrated in the hands of a few and their proprietary models mean that learning is not often spread to larger public systems. This leads to questions of sustainability and scalability. What LeBron James’ foundation and Project Zawadi do differently is to work in partnership with the public education systems that already exist to serve all students and families. While such work may be initially more cumbersome, studies of similar programs worldwide suggest the benefits are likely to be more widely spread and longer lasting.

In Minnesota, we are fortunate that we don’t need to look as far as Akron or Tanzania to find holistic, transformative work being done within public systems. In Brooklyn Center, which calls itself “Minnesota’s First Full Service Community District,” the district has partnered with medical providers to offer access to free medical, dental and mental health care in the same building that offers students the rigors of an International Baccalaureate curriculum. Each time I visit my daughter’s middle school, Linwood Monroe Arts Plus in St. Paul, I am thankful for all that it makes available to students and families – dedicated and highly trained educators teaching everything from dance to geometry, on-site counseling, Early Childhood and Family Education and English Language Learning services, and even winter clothing, which I imagine is appreciated by newly arrived families experiencing their first Minnesota winter.

Although the vast majority of Minnesota’s public schools will never have the kind of financial backing that LeBron James can provide, and certainly more resources are needed, we can be proud of the many ways we are already serving our kids and families with the resources we do have.

Let’s keep at it

Yet more can be done. When I return from Tanzania in late September, classes will be well under way here. My hope is my children will have settled into their school routines, and my students – many of whom are Minnesota teachers and educational administrators themselves — will have similarly found their stride and be ready to dive back into their grad school work. I’m planning my courses now, trying to come up with assignments to engage their thinking around building partnerships of educators, students, parents, citizens, policymakers, and researchers to support the well-being and achievement of all kids and families.

Sometimes I tell my students that our work is about finding ways to chip away at seemingly intractable educational gaps – the researcher/practitioner gap, the opportunity gap, etc. I am grateful that LeBron James in Akron and the community members of Nyamuswa, Tanzania, have beautifully shown that, in fact, this is all of our work. Let’s keep at it here in Minnesota.

Laura Wangsness Willemsen, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Doctoral Studies in Education at Concordia University, St. Paul.  She also sits on the board of directors of Project Zawadi.


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