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Not sold on social determinants of health? Check out LeBron James’ I Promise school

If you are unclear on how cities, employers, social service organizations, and healthcare systems need to address the social determinants of health, consider how LeBron James and the Akron Public Schools have organized the new I Promise school that opened recently.

AKRON, OH – JULY 30: LeBron James addresses the crowd during the opening ceremonies of the I Promise School on July 30, 2018 in Akron, Ohio.

Alphabet gets it: cities should be healthy places to live. Intermountain is investing $12 million to address “non-medical factors that impact a person’s health.”

If you are still unclear on how cities, employers, social service organizations, and healthcare systems need to address the social determinants of health, consider how LeBron James and the Akron Public Schools have organized the new I Promise school that opened recently.

This school is a unique partnership. The school district is paying 75 percent of the costs for the school and it is public. Kids apply via lottery to get in. The interesting part is what the funding from the LeBron James Family Foundation is covering. A lot of this year’s $2 million donation went to renovating the building but some of this money – and a significant amount of future gifts – will go to providing the services that the address the social determinants of health. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on who is paying for what:

“About $500,000 of the foundation’s contributions this year…..will cover extra teachers to reduce class sizes to 23 students per-teacher at most, staff training and I Promise’s after-school program.”

“This year’s costs also include hiring two people to manage the ‘wraparound’ social services the school will have for students. The school will follow the same pattern of providing social services to students – like counseling, health checkups, food pantries, clothing and tutoring – used by districts like Cincinnati and Cleveland, along with a few other Akron schools.

“The foundation will hire a coordinator for the school, who will work with different service agencies to locate help for students.”

It’s not enough to stabilize one part of a kid’s life and expect him to suddenly be a straight-A student. Improving education in isolation (and whether or not we are doing that is certainly up for debate) is like giving a person a prescription and expecting that alone to lower her blood pressure. The prescription is not the solution if the person has no money to fill it. Most people know how to take care of themselves. The problem is that they lack the resources – money, social support, a car – to do it. The services that James’ foundation is providing for the I Promise students recognizes this reality. It’s not the people who need to be fixed – it’s the system.

Everyone has their own list of social determinants but this is my comprehensive + concise version that shows how the I Promise school is addressing them.

Education – obviously.

Environment – This usually refers to the natural environment a person lives in – neighborhood safety, access to green space, the status of the air water and soil. As the school helps to build stronger social ties, that change could affect the character of the neighborhood.

Food – There will be a food pantry for families and the school will provide two meals and snacks to all students.

Healthcare – The school will provide checkups.

Housing – They get a pass for not addressing this one.

Social connections – The Foundation has reached a strong “We are Family” component and has already reached thousands of people in Akron. Beyond the kids in the program, James’ foundation has connected people all over Akron and built a broad network that can benefit the students and their families. (And people who need specific examples of how to build a healthy community.)

Transportation – I Promise students will get bikes.

Work –  The I Promise school will provide GED support and job training for parents.

The school is the latest effort of the I PROMISE Initiative which started in 2011: “recognizing that real change would require a lifelong commitment rooted in research and executed with care, LeBron began to tackle the high school dropout rate in Akron and launched the I PROMISE Initiative. It’s more than a program, it’s a long-term commitment to the youth in this community.”

Even the Promise reflects the comprehensive view of what it means to be healthy. Most of the 11 components of the Promise focus  on education but one is about health and one is simply “To have fun.” A truly healthy person is not all about work. She has purpose in her life and social connections as well. For kids, fun is an important purpose all on its own.

With a stable family in place, a child who wants to use one of the University of Akron scholarships that James’ foundation also provides will be better equipped to use it. And, because the foundation has a smart, long-term strategy, an I Promise student who arrives at the University of Akron will find the same community of support of she had in elementary and high school. The I Promise Institute on the university’s campus will make sure students graduate from college, just as they completed high school.

James knows exactly what he is doing. Other community leaders should follow his example – and many schools are doing this already without the high profile publicity of King James. These schools need more support — and credit for doing the right thing — not less.

If philanthropists and business leaders can’t figure out how to address the social determinants of health, read up on what LeBron James and the Akron Public School system is doing at the I Promise School. Fund the wraparound services and let teachers teach. This work is how we build healthy communities, healthy kids and ultimately healthy adults. Everyone has a role in the work and a responsibility to get it done.

Photo: Jason Miller, Getty Images

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