We should all promise: The ‘I Promise School’ as a model for tech funders

A Letter to Education Philanthropists, Tech Disrupters, and Charter School Enthusiasts

My Cleveland cousins and I have a history of smack talk. We’ve played the dozens, Warriors-Cavs style, for the past few years. I may have taunted LeBron James, and allegedly shared a meme or two that presented him in a less-than-flattering light. But, with the announcement of the new I Promise School in Akron, that has changed: I am publicly announcing my respect and support for his philanthropic work and for the man himself.

The LeBron James Family Foundation has partnered with the Akron Public School District to develop a school to support Akron’s most marginalized students. This is the right model for our philanthropy here in Bay Area.

I’m glad that millionaires and tech disrupters have prioritized education in their philanthropic efforts. I’m grateful for their good intentions and the money they are pouring into educational foundations. We have many challenges that need to be addressed, and there’s room for growth in every school.

LeBron James could have taken the more common approach of his fellow philanthropists and opened a brand-new institute or charter school. Heck, he could have built a state of the art, multimillion dollar private school just for his own kids. But he didn’t. He chose to reinvest in his home community in partnership with a local school district.

This subtle difference is significant. Unfortunately, many well-meaning philanthropists are actually hurting our public schools students. Here in California, schools and school districts receive their state funding based on the number of students in attendance. In the 2017-2018 school year, districts received $11,300 per pupil. Consider this: every 100 students that chose an alternative, non-San Francisco Unified School District school cost the district over a million dollars in per-pupil revenue.

This means cuts to services for our local public students: reading aides, afterschool programs, libraries and health centers — just the things most needed for most marginalized students to be healthy, strong and ready to join the 21st century workforce.

Therefore, I respectfully suggest to investors who are going outside our public school system that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We, in the Bay Area, are very creative about improving public schools, driving change and closing the opportunity gap. We are asking you, local philanthropists, interested in changing our schools to work with us to improve outcomes for our most marginalized students. You can accelerate the work we already doing, rather than competing with it.

The I Promise School in Akron is a perfect example of this win-win collaboration. The school district is funding the school and providing the school site infrastructure. They offer bussing for students who live more than two miles away from the school. Teachers are members of the district’s union, afforded the typical protections and benefits. Attendees are chosen, by lottery, from a pool of at-risk students who are at least a year behind their peers in academic performance. Mr. James’ philanthropic foundation is providing funding for a longer school day and year, additional staff members (intervention specialists, tutors, music and PE teachers), free snacks during the day, wraparound supports, trauma-informed practices, GED classes and job placement support for families of students. (This is akin to our local Community Schools model starting in S.F.) Class sizes are capped at 20 students. Students who go on to graduate from high school will be provided free tuition at University of Akron as well.

A great example of how collaboration already happening here in San Francisco is Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce. Mr. Benioff has been supporting San Francisco public schools for years. Each SFUSD middle school receives $100,000 each year to spend however the leadership team in the school sees fit to do so. When the grants were first announced, I was serving on the PTSA Board of James Lick Middle School. The PTSA and school leadership team were excited to be able to invest in Chromebooks, laptop carts and other hardware. More than five years later, my second daughter just graduated from Denman Middle School. This Salesforce grant money has been used over the years to build the school’s Maker Space. The space contains all kinds of tech gadgetry (including 3D printers). It houses the school’s tech elective as well, and the students in this class serve as tech support for the entire school.

Mad respect for King James, Akron Public Schools, and the I Promise School. I hope that this collaboration becomes the model for many more of its kind. However, to my friends and family in Los Angeles: game on. I look forward to the start of the smack talk in a month or two. And I still look forward to watching my beloved Dubs beat up on the Lakers this season.

Alida Ducey-Fisher running for a seat on the San Francisco school board. The mother of three SFUSD students and a recent Mission High School graduate, she is an active member of several school PTSAs and site councils, a member of the district’s African American Parent Advisory Council and LCAP Task Force and chair of the district’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education.

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