The I PROMISE Story
by Director Marc Levin
April 13, 2020
To my friends and colleagues,
In these dark times we look for light and hope. My wife and I have been binging on teen comedies. But a new series I directed on LeBron James’ I Promise School may offer a more compelling and inspiring escape from the 24/7 coverage of the virus spread.
I PROMISE was supposed to be unveiled by Quibi, the new streaming platform, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. When the festival was postponed we were crushed. But in a strange way, it may have even more meaning now as we try to deal with this pandemic.
Since the crash of 2008 we’ve been making films about how the changing global economy impacts everyday people’s live. We’ve seen the desperate need for our society to invest more in the public sector – public education, public health, public transportation, and public service.
I just read an article that said after only one day of kids’ staying home, three different men tweeted versions of the following: “First day of home schooling and I now firmly believe that teachers should be paid like C.E.O.s.”
Public education is the bedrock of a free and healthy society. Yet there has been a steady move to denigrate and disinvest in our public schools. We spent a year chronicling the start of this new I PROMISE SCHOOL in Akron Ohio. Their goal is to be a nationally recognized model of urban and public school excellence. It’s a noble goal but can it deliver. That’s our story.
Here’s how it all started.
I followed LeBron since his High School days at Saint Vincents in Akron. I am a basketball fan and the former co-captain of my High School team way back in the day. In fact I moved into my loft on 26th Street to be close to Madison Square Garden in the wake of the Knick’s last world championship back in the seventies. We’d watch the beginning of a game and if it looked good walk up to the Garden and get scalpers tickets below face value. So as a life long and long suffering Knick fan, I never rooted for LeBron in the NBA. Yes, he is a prodigious talent but on the wrong team.
But since LeBron spoke out on the Trayvon Martin case and followed up on other important issues, I have been impressed by his social conscience and his business savvy, on top of his unworldly athletic talent. But there’s no doubt this undertaking to create his own school is one of the greatest if not the greatest challenge of his life.
Many had advised LeBron to simply create a private academy which he and his team could control without interference from the Akron Board of Education or the Teachers Union. But LeBron said no. “I went to a public elementary school.” So then what about a charter school? “No, I didn’t go to a charter school.” It took some time to negotiate a deal between the LeBron James Family Foundation and the School Board and the Teachers Union. On top of that, LeBron wanted a public school for the most at risk kids in the system. These kids, much like LeBron before sports changed his life, are at risk of dropping out and worse. That’s quite a daunting undertaking. But he won me over. I’m a fan too.
Maybe it was just me getting restless waiting for my kids to have kids. But some biological clock pushed me to work with kids. Our last film before I PROMISE was CLASS DIVIDE on HBO. The star was Rosa, a 9–year-old Puerto Rican girl from the projects. Working with the young people in the Elliot Chelsea projects and the students across the street in Avenues The World School, only increased my passion for working with children. So I was excited about the idea of telling the I Promise story through the eyes of the kids. Everyone seemed to buy into that vision. So how do we find them.
One of my first trips to Akron I met the parents and grandparents of some of the kids. Kathleen McDonnell and I hit it off. The grandmother of a young 3rd grade girl, Scout, Kathleen is smart, informed and very open about discussing all the questions she had about the school.
Talking to Kathleen I began to see the central drama we faced. On one side was the hope in the kid’s faces and the school’s idealism and commitment and on the other side, the disintegrating families and communities surrounding them. As Kathleen said, “Our society is falling apart and these kids bring all the social, cultural, economic and spiritual problems and fallout with them to school everyday. We ask the teachers the impossible: deal with all society’s ills impacting these kids and then teach them.”
Scout is a spunky tom boy who wants to be a singer and actress. I started following her on day one. Meanwhile Dan and Jackson were on another school bus where they met a charismatic young boy they immediately sensed was a potential character. That was Nate, aka Nate the Great, the Hallway Rambler. Fatmac. is what his grandma nicknamed him. She turned him on to the classic soul and R&B that Nate loves and he showed us his James Brown shuffle.
Dan Levin, Executive Producer and Director of Photography (and my son) and Jackson Devereux our Aussie Producer were the core guerilla crew who shot the film with the help of the local Cleveland Film Company, while I scrambled around figuring out the next location, the next scene to focus on, the next character to follow and the next problem to be resolved. Of course in this kind of filmmaking it’s the spontaneous moment that can be pure magic. You have to work yourself into the right position and have the trust of everyone to capture it.
Early on Jackson was in Ms. Tozzi’s 3rd grade class and 2 girls, Dae Shauna and Chloe, were getting into an argument. Dae Shauna got very upset and climbed into one of the lockers and closed the door. Jackson captured it on video. Dae Shauna could go from angel to demon in a second, and she was very smart. Soon afterwards I met with her father and grandfather at a local spot for lunch. They agreed to let us follow Dae through the school year.
We also did conventional casting interviews, giving any kid who wanted a chance to talk to us. I went into every class and explained what we were doing and how we needed their help. I told them they could do whatever they want to on camera – tell a joke, make a face, sing a song… we called it the freestyle studio. A good number of kids volunteered and we built up a rapport and quite a bank of their comments. One scholar immediately stood out. When I asked Vincent what he wanted to do when he grew up he said, “I just kind of want to do my own thing.”
His thing was horror films, many of which he had screened over and over. He had a wicked sense of humor. We watched his interview at the hotel and ended up howling. The kid is a natural. We planned to meet for dinner downstairs a half hour later.. But we were so wiped out from a full day at the school that we all collapsed. How do teachers do this everyday!
Brandi Davis is the principal and she set the tone for everything to come.
Just a kid from Akron, like LeBron, she was a self described out of the box thinker who was born for this job. She exuded authority and compassion, with an impressive command of the mission and the team. It didn’t hurt that she was a real sports freak also.
She invited me to one of the teacher training sessions before the school opened. That allowed me to introduce myself to the staff and answer their questions. Obviously a movie crew could end up being a real wild card, making their tough job even harder. So they were rightly apprehensive. I told them I come from a family of educators, my mom, 2 of my sisters, my aunts – it’s a Levin tradition. I shared some of my filmmaking experiences and how I grew to understand education is the solution to so many of our social problems and teachers are real heroes despite being devalued and disrespected by too many.
The star of “Chicagoland” ended up being the young principal of Fenger High School, Liz Dozier. Now she’s running a major education reform foundation “Chicago Beyond.” In “Brick City,” the Central High School principal. Ras Baraka, spoke to an assembly of students after an outburst of shootings, telling them “This is not normal.” The video went viral and Ras Baraka eventually became the Mayor of Newark. The point was, yes making a film could be very disruptive and they were right to be cautious. But we are different. We want to be part of the team, we want to work with you and make it work for you and the kids.
The thing that made the real difference was that Brandi and the teachers realized this couldn’t just be a puff piece. This had to be real. We had to show the good, bad and the ugly. People had to see the wins and losses. The victories don’t mean anything without the pain of the losses. People had to see and feel how deep the challenges were that the kids and the teachers faced. “People need to know what we deal with,” one teacher said.
After the meeting I chatted with a few of the teachers who wanted to participate including Stephanie Arnett, Angel Whorton, Jessica Tozzi, and Molly Kenney. Nicole Hassan, a teacher who became the laison between the foundation and the school system, became indispensable to our production.
One afternoon we were outside taping in the playground with some of the kids working with us. Noah, one of the toughest kids to control, asked what he could do to help. We were about to move inside so I said, “Noah you take the tripod.” He slung it over his shoulder and led the crew toward the door. As I followed one of the teachers stopped me and said, “What did you give him? I’ve never seen him do anything any adult ever asked him to do.”
I didn’t give him anything. He was part of the crew, part of the creative team, part of the storytelling and the production.
From the beginning that was our approach. Immersive, involved, trying to use the very making of the film as a unique learning experience for the scholars as they were affectionately called. And in the end, for us also.
I remember when the NY Times critic put down “Gang War: Banging in Little Rock” because it seemed to suggest that one answer to youth violence was “Hug and thug.” Well here was a school that embraced that philosophy. “We Are Family” was their mantra. And that all started with the Lebron James Family Foundation.
LJFF and APS
On our first visit to their comfortable office in a small modern complex off the highway and a little out of town, we were given a tour and introduced to their team. The offices were full of pictures and artifacts of LeBron. The team was down to earth, smart, open and fun. We shared a circle with them, a little New Age for us cynical New Yorkers, but a very important part of the foundation and the school. Every school day begins with each class sitting in a circle and listening to a song and then discussing their feelings about the songs and other things in their lives.
Everyone at the Foundation has a nickname. Nick “Nach” Lopez was the media maven and our go to guy. Michele Campbell is “Boss,” the woman who created this school. She had to work out a deal with the Akron Board of Education which was no honeymoon despite LeBron’s fame. Local school boards hoard their territory and don’t cede control naturally. They negotiated for over a year and a half while Michele also traveled the country studying innovative educational models for ideas.
Michele and the foundation designed a STEM curriculum and a Trauma support system which includes breakfast in the classroom and the I Promise circles after breakfast and lunch. In addition there is a family resource center which provides wrap around services including medical and dental, food bank, GED classes for parents, legal aid, and counseling. These were some of the key ingredients that made the WE ARE FAMILY philosophy a reality.
Despite all the preparation and excitement we still had to get the permission of the Akron Public Schools. My presentation to the school superintendent David James was straightforward. Making “Brick City” and “Chicagoland” gave me a keen understanding of the tremendous importance of public education. It also gave me a new respect for educators, so often maligned in public discourse. At the same time we have to be free to tell the truth. This can’t be a puff piece for LeBron’s Foundation or the Akron Public Schools.
Mr. James made it clear that he has to keep the 7 school board members happy. Their fear was that the film might make it seem that LeBron James had to save the Akron School system because it was falling apart. He made the point that all but 2 of the teachers are from the Akron School system and that STEM and Trauma Informed teaching is used throughout the Akron school system. So he asked, “Who controls the message?”
I told him I understood his concerns and that we would be responsive to their input. But there was no way they could have final cut. The creative and editorial control had to be independent of the school board. He was respectful and said he would have to consult the board and their counsel. It took a little negotiating but we worked it out. Again we were the wild card on top of an already uncertain partnership between the foundation and the board. This kind of public private partnership creating an elementary school was unique. It’s not easy, and now you have a film crew chronicling it all. I told him “If we could work in the public schools in Newark, Chicago, and New York, I’m confident we can work it out here.” He nodded, “I agree.”
Opening Day, July 28, 2018, was a global media event, with much hoopla and grand expectations. We huddled with our production partners, Phil Byron from Springhill Productions, and Catherine Cyr and Josh Gold from Ryot. They had been working for months on setting up this project and we were all psyched to finally get the production rolling. LeBron along with his mom, wife and daughter, led the student parade to the main event. His comments were heartfelt and insightful. After his remarks I texted a friend, “Bron for Prez in 2020!”
But within a week or two things got chaotic. Kids were throwing over chairs and desks, climbing in lockers, fighting, hitting teachers…it was crazy. The teachers, many of whom were teachers of the year in their former schools, were beginning to feel the stress. Many had taught in tough urban schools where a class of 30 might have 4 or 5 real problem kids. Here they had a smaller class, around 20 with a teacher’s aid, but every kid in the class had faced serious trauma and had issues. This was going to be harder than they thought.
In trauma based and social emotional learning the first step is to break through the psychological blocks before trying to teach the academic lessons. So much of the model revolved around teaching the kids to understand and control their own emotions. It sounds simple and almost naïve, that the key to teaching a kid is having them feel safe and secure. But for so many talented kids, their life circumstances and the systems negligence and dysfunction dooms their prospects. The We Are Family philosophy seeks to remedy that by having the kids feel they are a part of a family that has their back and wants them to succeed.
Still I wondered whether it was really possible for these kids, many of whom struggled to read at even a 1st grade level, to really make 1-2 years progress in this first year? And whether the emotional commitment and energy the teachers put out every day can ever be sustained?
That’s the story of the I PROMISE series, which will premier on the new Quibi service (available for a free 90 day trial) on April 6th.
Our society is doomed without a first rate public school system. The I Promise story is just the beginning. Hopefully it helps light a spark of renewed commitment to reinvigorating, reinventing, and reviving public education for the 21st century. If this pandemic has shown us anything it is the cost of abandoning the public good - that means public health and public education with robust science and technology combined with the humanities and the arts – yes the arts – that’s not just for after school clubs or private tutors. Music, art, dance, writing, media – storytelling in all forms is essential and can be the key to critical thinking and a creative life.
Thank you Nate, Dae, Vince and Scout and everyone at IPS. You gave me a magic gift – YOU gave me hope in the future and in the words of the singer Van Morrison, YOU “keep me young as I grow old.”