SANDUSKY:

The LeBron James Family Foundation and the University of Akron could be putting as many as 2,300 Akron kids through college in a new partnership announced Thursday.

James and UA President Scott Scarborough revealed the next evolution in the foundation’s I PROMISE program at the organization’s annual “family reunion” — this year a Cedar Point excursion for nearly 5,000 students and family members.

The Akron contingent — a sea of green in identical “We Are Family” T-shirts — slipped away from the roller coasters in the late afternoon to gather at a stage outside the park to hear the news.

“If you are one of LeBron’s kids … we want to tell you you have a college scholarship waiting for you at the University of Akron when you graduate from high school,” Scarborough said before being drowned out by cheers.

“What do you dream to be? Do you dream to be a teacher? A scientist? An engineer or a doctor? This college scholarship is your way to make that happen, and all because that man believes in you,” Scarborough said with a nod toward James.

“This is one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of,” James said in a news conference after the staged event, which included the UA marching band and fireworks. Growing up in Akron’s inner city, he said he knows “kids don’t really grow up thinking beyond high school.”

College isn’t a realistic future for many, he said, and “kids need to see a finish line.”

Scarborough said UA will work with the foundation over the next five years to raise the money to cover the tuition and general fees for the first recipients, who will be graduating from high school in 2021.

As a fallback, UA will prioritize its regular financial-aid program to make sure the free college promise is kept, but Scarborough said he is confident fundraising efforts will meet most of the demand.

In each of the last four years, the foundation has selected about 300 third-graders attending Akron Public Schools to enter its Wheels for Education program, which provides summer technology camp experiences, after-school activities and mentorship opportunities. As those students enter middle school, they are moved to the foundation’s Akron I PROMISE Network, where they remain through high school.

Students eligible for the free four-year scholarships include about 1,100 students currently in those programs, as well as an estimated 1,200 expected to be added over the next four years. Scarborough said he hopes the “renewable partnership” will go beyond even that.

Scholarship recipients will be expected to meet grade-point average, attendance and other standards that are yet to be determined, Scarborough said. A committee will meet to draft the guidelines.

“Our goal is to make it reasonable, to make it a level that these kids have a good chance of succeeding when they come to the University of Akron,” Scarborough said. “The more students who get there, the better.”

He estimated a four-year scholarship is valued at $38,000.

Tracy Griffin, a single mom raising three kids, was nearly moved to tears as she called her dad after the announcement.

“Just to know I don’t have to worry about that,” Griffin said. “The rides are nice, but to suddenly find I’m a parent who doesn’t have to worry about their child’s future, it’s a blessing.”

She pulled her daugher Bria, 10, in for a hug. Bria, who attends Crouse Community Learning Center, has been in the Wheels program for three years.

“I don’t want her to struggle like I did,” said Griffin, who juggles two jobs to support her kids.

“I’m so happy,” Bria chimed in, adding that she’s always wanted to be either a veterinarian or a pediatrician.

James said college doesn’t just change the lives of the students; it can impact their entire family by taking the financial burden off their plate.

Dionne Jordan couldn’t agree more. Standing in line waiting to ride the Troika with her son Parson, 9, she said education opportunities can have a ripple effect.

“I think it means because that child has a chance to be successful,” Jordan said, “it can lift up the whole family.”

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.