AKRON, Ohio — The students paraded through hugs and high-fives from staff, who danced as Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” blared through the hallways. They were showered with compliments as they walked through a buffet of breakfast foods.
The scene might be expected on a special occasion at any other public school. At LeBron James’s I Promise School, it was just Monday.
Every day, they are celebrated for walking through the door. This time last year, the students at the school — Mr. James’s biggest foray into educational philanthropy — were identified as the worst performers in the Akron public schools and branded with behavioral problems. Some as young as 8 were considered at risk of not graduating.
Now, they are helping close the achievement gap in Akron.
The academic results are early, and at 240, the sample size of students is small, but the inaugural classes of third and fourth graders at I Promise posted extraordinary results in their first set of district assessments. Ninety percent met or exceeded individual growth goals in reading and math, outpacing their peers across the district.
“These kids are doing an unbelievable job, better than we all expected,” Mr. James said in a telephone interview hours before a game in Los Angeles for the Lakers. “When we first started, people knew I was opening a school for kids. Now people are going to really understand the lack of education they had before they came to our school. People are going to finally understand what goes on behind our doors.”
The school opened with some skepticism — not only for its high-profile founder, considered by some to be the best basketball player ever, but also for an academic model aimed at students who were, by many accounts, considered unredeemable.
“We are reigniting dreams that were extinguished — already in third and fourth grade,” said Brandi Davis, the school’s principal. “We want to change the face of urban education.”
The scores reflect students’ performance on the Measures of Academic Progress assessment, a nationally recognized test administered by NWEA, an evaluation association. In reading, where both classes had scored in the lowest, or first, percentile, third graders moved to the ninth percentile, and fourth graders to the 16th. In math, third graders jumped from the lowest percentile to the 18th, while fourth graders moved from the second percentile to the 30th.
The 90 percent of I Promise students who met their goals exceeded the 70 percent of students districtwide, and scored in the 99th growth percentile of the evaluation association’s school norms, which the district said showed that students’ test scores increased at a higher rate than 99 out of 100 schools nationally.
The students have a long way to go to even join the middle of the pack. And time will tell whether the gains are sustainable and how they stack up against rigorous state standardized tests at the end of the year. To some extent, the excitement surrounding the students’ progress illustrates a somber reality in urban education, where big hopes hinge on small victories.
“It’s encouraging to see growth, but by no means are we out of the woods,” said Keith Liechty, a coordinator in Akron public school system’s Office of School Improvement. “The goal is for these students to be at grade level, and we’re not there yet. This just tells us we’re going in the right direction.”
But Mr. Liechty, who has been with the district for 20 years, said that the students’ leaps would not be expected in an entire school year, let alone half of one. “For the average student,” he said, “your percentile doesn’t move that much unless something extraordinary is happening.”
On a tour of the school on Monday, Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, pointed out what she called I Promise’s “secret sauce.” In one room, staff members were busy organizing a room filled with bins of clothing and shelves of peanut butter, jelly and Cheerios. At any time, parents can grab a shopping bin and take what they need.
Down the hallway, parents honed their math skills for their coming General Educational Development exams as their students learned upstairs.
Dr. Campbell arrived to a classroom where a student and teacher were facing off.
“You’re being too aggressive!” the student snapped at Angel Whorton, an intervention specialist.
There was a pause, and the two burst into giggles, breaking character in a role-playing assignment.
“Good; that’s how I need you to use your words,” Ms. Wharton said to the boy, who is awaiting a disciplinary hearing.
Dr. Campbell smiled, “There’s magic happening in that room.”
Unlike other schools connected to celebrities, I Promise is not a charter school run by a private operator but a public school operated by the district. Its population is 60 percent black, 15 percent English-language learners and 29 percent special education students. Three-quarters of its families meet the low-income threshold to receive services from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
I Promise students were among those identified by the district as performing in the 10th to 25th percentile on their second-grade assessments. They were then admitted through a lottery.
“These were the children where you went and talked with their old teachers, and they said, ‘This will never work,’” Dr. Campbell said. “We said give them to us.”
Students here are aware that they are part of something special. “We get to have fun, and have opportunities that other kids don’t have,” said Kamari Dennis, a fourth grader.
The school is an extension of Mr. James’s work in his hometown, Akron, where his family’s foundation has been active for seven years. The I Promise program supports about 1,100 other students in third through 10th grade across the Akron public school district, with mentoring, college and career preparation and other resources estimated at $2.6 million for this school year. All of the students in the program and the school that meet certain academic criteria will receive a full college scholarship to the University of Akron.
But the I Promise School was a recognition that the foundation’s community services were not enough. They needed to reach students earlier. They secured an old district office building that served as a holding place for schools in transition, poured in $2 million and counting for improvements and reopened it in seven weeks. The school opened in July 2018 and is expected to serve 720 students in third through eighth grade by 2022.
The school’s $2 million budget is funded by the district, roughly the same amount per pupil that it spends in other schools. Mr. James’s foundation has provided about $600,000 in financial support for additional teaching staff to help reduce class sizes, and an additional hour of after-school programming and tutors. It also covers the cost of all expenses in the school’s family resource center, which provides parents with G.E.D. preparation, work advice, health and legal services, and even a quarterly barbershop.
The foundation’s support affords I Promise more resources than the average school, but Ms. Davis, a veteran principal in the district, said the school values things that no money could buy.
“It doesn’t take money to build relationships,” she said. “It doesn’t take money for you to teach students how to love.”
The school negotiated with the Akron Education Association for an extra hour a day and an extended year to put into place programs intended to address students’ social and emotional needs.
Pat Shipe, the president of the association, said the union was proud of the collaboration and “cautiously optimistic” about its outcomes.
“While this school is in its infancy, we look forward to an extended review of the many indicators, which will confirm any growth, understanding that one or two tests do not tell the whole story,” she said.
On a recent morning, students spent the first hour getting ready for the day in a gathering that is called an “I Promise Circle.” By the end of the circle, a girl who was upset about a run-in with her bus driver and another girl who had dozed off were squealing happily at the end of the game Down by the Banks.
“Everything is strategic to transform the way our day goes,” said Nicole Hassan, a liaison from Akron Public Schools who oversees I Promise’s trauma-informed curriculum.
The school’s culture is built on “Habits of Promise” — perseverance, perpetual learning, problem solving, partnering and perspective — that every student commits to memory. The slogan “We Are Family” is emblazoned on walls and T-shirts.
Nickole Wyatt, whose son Ti’Jay Wyatt is in fourth grade, said she had felt unsupported ever since she became a teenage mother. “It took me coming here to realize what family even is,” she said.
Ms. Wyatt, who is taking classes at the school to get her high school equivalency diploma, said I Promise saved not only her son’s education but her own life.
“I was skeptical even of my own life, wondering, ‘Am I even worth fighting for?” she said. “When I come here every day, I know it’s going to be O.K.”
Vikki McGee, who runs the school’s family resource center, said the center’s existence conveyed that the school was about something much bigger than a basketball star: “This is about fighting for generations.”
Mr. James has visited twice since the school year started, but he is everywhere — on murals, on wallpaper, on video messages. He comes up often when students reflect on their educational experience.
“One time, LeBron wrote us a letter, and I knew it was real because I saw the paper was signed in pen,” said Vikyah Powe, a fourth grader. “That encouraged me.”
While Mr. James called the school “the coolest thing that I’ve done in my life thus far,” he said he could take credit for only a small part of what was happening.
“I had the vision of wanting to give back to my community. The people around every day are helping that vision come to life,” he said. “Half the battle is trying to engage them and show that there’s always going to be somebody looking out for them.”
Lining the walls of the school’s vast lobby are 114 shoes, including those worn during the 2016 season when Mr. James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the N.B.A. championship, a reminder that he once walked a path similar to these students. Mr. James was also considered at risk; in fourth grade, he missed 83 days of school.
Nataylia Henry, a fourth grader, missed more than 50 days of school last year because she said she would rather sleep than face bullies at school. This year, her overall attendance rate is 80 percent.
“LeBron made this school,” she said. “It’s an important school. It means that you can always depend on someone.”