The founding academic staff members at the I Promise School know they have a tall task ahead of them.

With a goal to grow students an equivalent of two academic years in just one, the staff will be combining several of education’s best practices to educate students performing in the lowest 25th percentile of the district academically.

The concept and hefty goal have drawn doubt from naysayers, said Elena Gibbons, an incoming third-grade intervention specialist.

Regardless, the 43 academic staff members have spent the past three months attempting to make their dreamlike vision a reality for the I Promise School, a partnership between Akron Public Schools and the LeBron James Family Foundation set to open Monday.

“It’s been like a roller coaster — a lot of intense moments of excitement, and intense moments of being afraid and worried,” Gibbons said. “No one amongst our staff thinks that just because they were chosen that they’ve got this in the bag.”

Brandi Davis, the I Promise School principal, said she sat through more than 100 staff interviews that included a panel interview with all department heads, two videos and one hypothetical letter that candidates had to write to families.

From those interviews came 12 classroom teachers (six for each grade), four intervention specialists, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, an assistant principal, a tutor, a gym teacher and 23 other academic staff members who were in place by April.

Most of the teachers are women, and all but two worked in Akron Public Schools previously. Their levels of experience range from three years to 37 years.

“Our founding staff are like no other. They are truly amazing,” said Davis, the previous principal of Schumacher elementary. “I’ve never worked with teachers that have this high of a skill set and level of compassion.”

Davis said the staff in place was chosen because it demonstrated traits that are essential to achieving the school’s goals: perseverance, persistence, grit, flexibility, creativity and compassion, just to name a few.

The challenge now for Davis and Assistant Principal Jeff Lysiak, they said, is to push the staff even farther.

Development

Since they were hired, each of the school’s 43 staff members has spent more than 100 hours in professional development preparing to educate the upcoming cohort of third- and fourth-graders.

In addition, they’ll also spend the latter half of the school day every Wednesday in additional professional development.

The school has three foundational principles: STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), restorative practices for social-emotional learning and family wraparound supports.

Davis said the staff has been learning why each is important and how to integrate them into teaching and interacting with the students.

Once school starts, the staff will focus in even more on specific topics during their weekly development sessions.

“The staff, they were introduced to a lot of concepts and we started to dig deep, but it’s about digging deeper,” Davis said. “It’s all about really understanding the focus and direction we’re going in as a school.”

Of course, like any element involving the LeBron James Family Foundation, a little bit of fun has to be included, too. Davis said training sessions also include team building and other fun activities to make sure they’re “taking care of the teachers, too.”

During a recent training session, staff members got a surprise as they took their lunch break in the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM Middle School: Each received a black backpack donated from BSN Sports stuffed with a brand new pair of Nike shoes and a black baseball cap with “IPS” stitched on the front.

Incoming intervention specialist Angela Whorton, who has worked in the district about 10 years, was among the many who screamed in excitement. She slipped on the shoes and hat and snapped a photo in the new gear.

“Who else gets to do this?” Whorton said. “We’re so grateful for everything [the foundation] is doing for us. No one desired the perks. All the extra wrapping is unbelievable.”

All in at I Promise

Many of the staff members agreed they wanted to be a part of the school for one simple reason: It’s their dream school to work in.

That doesn’t come without its drawbacks, though.

The teachers will be working with some of the district’s lowest-performing students academically, and their academic year will be longer than others in the district. But they’ll receive the same base pay as other teachers in the district of a little less than $40,000 a year.

“Even though we hardly got summer breaks, it’s been worth it,” Gibbons said. “Every single minute, second, it’s all worth it.”

The staff also is diving head-first into a brand new school with an abundance of support, but little idea of how the concepts will work in practice.

The uncertainty has led to a mixture of feelings for staff members as the school’s opening day creeps closer. They know it’s up to them to pave the way for future staff members as the school eventually grows to hold grades 1-8 in 2022.

“I feel anxiety and excitement ping-ponging back and forth ... I just want to see the kids on their first day,” Whorton said. “I just feel blessed to be able to live my purpose and destiny at a school I’ve always envisioned working in. It’s something the world’s never done, and to be involved is precious.”

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.