Hard as administrators tried, 240 students had anything but a normal first day of school when doors to the I Promise School opened Monday.

By the afternoon, music blared from speakers outside the school’s windows. Professional athletes roamed the halls. A parade of people lined up outside and a horde of media surrounded the school. More than a dozen armed security guards and police officers covered the building grounds.

But when the doors opened at 8:45 a.m. that morning and students stepped into the building curated just for them, they had clues to expect something different — starting with the gray shirts they were given to wear instead of what they arrived dressed in as a first step to starting anew.

“It was magical,” said Angela Whorton, an intervention specialist, about the first day. “Just to see how genuinely excited they were to start a new chapter of their life with a clean slate was beyond great.”

The I Promise School — a partnership between the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools — opened Monday to third- and fourth-graders who are falling behind their peers academically with a stage show featuring LeBron James.

The curriculum aims to adopt the “We Are Family” philosophy of the LeBron James Family Foundation, infuse it with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and take into account the struggles and traumas in students’ lives to provide “social-emotional learning.” It implements a year-round education for kids to retain what they learn.

The school includes a family resource center, where families of I Promise students can go for food, to earn their GEDs and to access a plethora of other county resources.

LeBron James, who made his first public appearance Monday since deciding to join the Los Angeles Lakers, spearheaded the effort more than a year ago as a way to consolidate his existing I Promise Network into one building to create a lasting impact on the community.

“I think one of my long-term goals is that every kid who walks through those doors, they feel empowered, they know they have a support system, they know there’s someone that cares about them,” James said in an exclusive interview with the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com. “I think that’s what it ultimately comes down to is that someone cares about their future. We want the next great police officer, the next great politician, the next great doctor, the next great nurse, the next great musician ... Whatever the case may be, we hope it comes out of this school.”

Dog and pony show

As kids continued their first day back at school, a mass of more than 2,000 people gathered outside to watch the festivities hosted by the LeBron James Family Foundation for its partners, students and their families.

Akron’s Dave Lieberth emceed the event as James, who said he had the “jitters,” watched on a TV from inside the school with his 4-year-old daughter, Zhuri, his wife, Savannah, and his mother, Gloria.

Outside, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan and Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James addressed the crowd.

“LeBron, I don’t think we can possibly thank you enough for what you do. Even the English department has run out of words for your efforts,” Superintendent James said.

Then, the Singing Angels choir sang a song before a mass of people representing community partners paraded in front of the stage.

Afterward, Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Tori Kelly made a surprise appearance and performed the song Hallelujah.

But nothing got a reaction from the crowd like LeBron James, who stepped out during Kelly’s song in a gray suit with a trail of students in their gray polo-style shirts following behind.

Kids gazed wide-eyed at the scene as they lined up on bleachers and on the ground on either side of the stage as LeBron James addressed the crowd.

“As a kid from Akron, Ohio, myself, I remember walking these streets ... I know exactly what these 240 kids are going through,” James said. “I know the streets they walk, I know the trials and tribulations they go through, I know the ups and downs, I know everything that they dream about, I know all the nightmares that they have, because I’ve been there. I know exactly why they want this.

“I want people to know that these kids still have the same opportunities as everyone else, and that’s what’s important,” James continued. “Us as adults have a responsibility to not let these kids down ... because those kids are our future.”

Then, James watched as his mother raised the I Promise flag, and dozens of kids turned to watch him.

One-on-one

As parents picked up their kids after the festivities, many of the students recalled the most memorable moments of their day — which, for many, was getting to meet LeBron James himself, who walked the halls and met students.

Miracle Midder, a fourth-grader, said she was shocked to meet the basketball star and even shook his hand.

Miracle, 9, said the I Promise School is “way different” than Betty Jane elementary, where she used to attend.

“It wasn’t this big, and I didn’t get to see LeBron,” Miracle said.

As the excitement over the basketball star wanes with his retreat back to California, time will tell whether students retain their excitement for the school.

But anticipation from parents over the school’s potential is likely to last as kids embark on their first year at the brand new school.

“I can’t wait to see all the things that are going to happen. I’m so proud of you,” said Kiuera Booker, Miracle’s mom, as she hugged her daughter tight.

“Hey,” Miracle said, “You’re wiping LeBron off!”

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