With the Quibi short-form series I Promise, executive producer Maverick Carter aimed to spotlight the impact of education in the lives of at-risk youth, as well as the incredible achievements of educators at one particular urban public school.
Directed by Marc Levin, the series takes an in-depth look at the first academic year of Akron, Ohio’s I Promise School, examining the stories and struggles of both students and teachers within this institution.
Founded by Akron native LeBron James in 2018, the I Promise School was created to provide a familial, progressive and supportive environment, in which at-risk kids from inner-city neighborhoods could come together, learn and thrive. Helping kids to deal with behavioral and familial issues, as well as educational challenges, the innovative establishment’s long-term goal has been to improve graduation rates, and subsequently, to spark a revolution in public education.
To Carter—a longtime friend of James’, who founded SpringHill Entertainment with the NBA star—the work that IPS is doing in support of its community couldn’t be any more urgent, both to take on and to portray on screen.
“You hear LeBron say in the opening—these kids’ lives are at stake. It’s literally a matter of survival. I hope people watch this series and see those struggles and know they can change this,” the EP explains. ‘The system can be changed. And we’re showing what it takes to do it.
“You’ve got to be committed for the long haul, and you’ve got to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work. Because this is tough stuff,” he adds. “But it’s the advocacy and action we need if we want to see the real change this country so desperately needs.”
DEADLINE: How did the I Promise series come about? Why was this a project you were passionate about taking on?
MAVERICK CARTER: Since the LeBron James Family Foundation shifted its focus on education, it’s been important to us to document the innovative work we’re doing. We know the things we are undertaking in education are hard and complex, but we recognized early on that through this work, we could create a model for others of how you can create change, specifically in the urban public education sector. Once the school started coming together, with input from across the entire community, we kept cameras rolling. And what you see in I Promise is an inside look within those walls in year one. We had the plans, but we were really learning as we go. And as you’ll see with our main characters, these students are up against a lot. These are the real stories we need to see. This is the real change we need to see, and I’m incredibly proud that this story is out in the world.
DEADLINE: Can you speak to your early conversations with James, in terms of how he wanted to approach the series, and what we wanted to express?
CARTER: We just knew we had to be real. The challenges and barriers these families in Akron are facing are very real, and they exist in every community across the country. We weren’t going to sugarcoat it and paint this picture of how perfect everything at the I Promise School is. Because that’s not the reality. To do this work takes a lifetime commitment. It is tough stuff. We are still learning and adapting to the students and the staff’s needs every single day, and this series really gives you an intimate look at all of it.
DEADLINE: How did the series come to Quibi?
CARTER: For SpringHill, it’s always important that the content find the right platform, not the other way around. With Quibi, there was an opportunity to break down so much of what transpired in year one into short, digestible, and powerful episodes. I think creatively, it captures the urgency of what we were trying to do and the impact it had on so many lives.
DEADLINE: Did framing I Promise as a short-form series present creative challenges for you?
CARTER: The story is so compelling, we wanted to make sure we captured the power of it, and I think that comes across well in the short-form series. Obviously we have so much more to cover with how the school is adapting and responding to the pandemic, so we are really just scratching the surface.
DEADLINE: What were some of the biggest challenges in producing the show?
CARTER: The biggest thing we had to do was establish trust with these families who are used to dealing with systems they don’t trust. Getting them to open up and be vulnerable became easy once they recognized this was an opportunity to help create the change they know is needed. Because they’ve experienced it firsthand. Once we got their buy-in, we had to make some tough editorial decisions in terms of what to show, because we had so much powerful footage, but we also wanted to maintain that trust. Ultimately, we kept it real and showed the tough stuff with our families’ full support.
DEADLINE: Were there specific highlights to your experience with the series, or specific moments that will stay with you?
CARTER: I will never forget being in Akron the day the I Promise School opened its doors for the very first time. You could just feel the magnitude of that moment. To see that it is directly improving so many lives so quickly is extraordinary. We all had high hopes for what the school could do, but getting the students’ test results in year one, and seeing those huge strides the kids made right out of the gate, it was mind blowing. It proved that all kids need is someone to believe in them. And they need a system that wraps around them with the support and resources that have eluded them, for whatever reason. Anything is possible when you set them up for success, and it’s just incredible to see that in this series.
DEADLINE: What was it like working with children who probably weren’t familiar with appearing in front of the camera?
CARTER: Again, it was about building that trust. Kids naturally tend to be a bit camera shy, especially in front of strangers. But the beauty of what we were able to do between LJFF, SpringHill and the Blowback [Productions] crew, is that the director, the camera opps, the lighting guys—they all became part of the family. They really invested in the students and their families and created a relationship that went beyond filming. One of our producers actually helped set up one of our students with drum lessons because that was something he always talked about but his family couldn’t afford. Those bonds made all the difference. This series is so much more than a documentary series—it didn’t just end when the cameras stopped rolling. It’s real life, and it continues today.
DEADLINE: How did you feel, seeing the growth of students at the school, and the teachers’ dedication to helping them grow?
CARTER: What’s so incredible about this series is you can see change and growth happening before your eyes. You can see the students allow the educators in. You can see their sacrifices and struggles slowly turn into progress. And seeing their smiles and their reactions when they got their test scores tells you everything about what education and this work means to them and their families. It means a better future. It means food on the table. It is life changing in every sense of the term. And the teachers at the I Promise School are unbelievable. They have dedicated their lives to something bigger than themselves, and that matters a whole lot.