On the second floor of the I Promise School, 40 third-graders pick up their desk chairs and carry them across the room to form a long oval. A few shy students clamor for seats next to one of their three teachers.

With the lights turned off, they close their eyes while a song plays. Today, it's Panic! At the Disco's "High Hopes."

 

Had to have high, high hopes for living

Shooting for the stars when I couldn’t make a killing

Didn’t have a dime but I always had a vision

Always had high, high hopes

 

Their eyes opening, they see one of the teachers holding a stuffed animal, a blue Pete the Cat.

"I want you to think about how you're going to be your best self," Kelli Pestello tells her students.

As I Promise begins its second year, expanding to serve 344 students in grades three through five and debuting a renovated resource center for families, school leaders are building on the successes of last year. The school, a partnership between Akron Public Schools and The LeBron James Family Foundation, saw promising academic growth and received national attention for it.

Staff say the foundation's continued commitment to knock down walls — some physical, others metaphorical — makes an extraordinarily difficult job easier. But with a year under their belts, they are also learning from the challenges of serving such a high-need population and trying not to feel the weight of the future of urban education on their shoulders.

In the third-grade classroom, students hold the stuffed animal one by one and voice ways they can make today a better day than yesterday.

"Stay awake," several of them say. "Listen to the teacher." "Make more friends."

Some need coaxing. This is day seven of their first year at I Promise — which opened its doors for the second year July 29 — and the self-reflection and sharing is still new.

Others show quickly the trust they have in their new teachers.

"The electricity was off, and I didn't have anything to eat," one girl with knee-high unicorn socks says softly to Pestello.

She's the second child this morning to say that.

A student lacking basic needs is an all-too common occurrence at I Promise; 70% of the students at the school are poor enough to receive state services.

And yet, the hopes for these children are higher than high.

 

Didn't know how but I always had a feeling

I was gonna be that one in a million

 

Buchtel High graduate Brandi Davis created I Promise as a "Utopian school," designed with a longer school day and year, smaller class sizes of 20 students, a flexible STEM-based curriculum, a diverse staff, and social and emotional supports for students and their families.

"We knew coming into this building that we were seeking to create change in urban public school," Davis said. "And we want to be the model to do that."

The school opened to international fanfare, in part due to basketball superstar and Akron native LeBron James. But it also created a type of laboratory school for a public-private partnership that draws attention on its own.

Many others have sought to do the same. How would this model be different? And if it saw success, could that be replicated?

Davis, a former Schumacher Community Learning Center principal, says it comes down to the school’s "We Are Family" culture. The Family Resource Center offers a wide range of services to families, including high school equivalency classes, résumé-building workshops, a food pantry, a direct line to Summit County Job and Family Services and, opening next week, a laundry facility.

The approach has allowed students and their parents to feel like they are loved and cared for and to trust the school, Davis said.

All but one of last year's third- and fourth-grade students re-enrolled this year — a nearly unheard-of return rate, especially in an urban district. The one student who left wanted to stay, but the family was moving out of state, Davis said.

"We want them to commit to us long-term, so we have to make it worth their while to stay with us," Davis said.

They made it worthwhile for 10-year-old Matilyn "Matty" Brode.

"I wasn't getting the support I needed," the fifth-grader said of her time at her previous school.

At I Promise, "I'm getting more hugs, more smiles," she said. "And I'm getting more help with the reading support I need."

Her father, Matthew Brode, noticed a significant difference in Matty.

She used to be reluctant to talk in school, Brode said. She was falling so far behind in reading that the school gave her an individualized education plan, known as an IEP, designed for students with special needs to receive interventions.

"They think by the end of the year she will no longer need the IEP because of how far she's advanced and how high she tested," Brode said. The school also equipped his whole family with eyeglasses.

Matty is now talkative and unafraid to share her opinions, including her joy over seeing female heroes added to the floor-to-ceiling mural on the school’s first floor.

Wearing pink sparkly boots, she likes to stand in front of the mural and look up at former first lady Michelle Obama.

 

Rewrite your history

Light up your wildest dreams

 

I Promise leaders say stories like Matty's are the mark of success. They know what they will be held accountable for is more quantifiable.

It was a relief when they received their first set of in-house test scores showing movement.

In reading, the third-grade as a whole moved from the first percentile in the country on the Measurement of Academic Progress test, known as MAP, to the ninth percentile from the beginning of the school year to March. Fourth-graders moved from the first percentile to the 16th.

At the beginning of the year, 115 third-graders were in danger of not moving on to the fourth grade because of their reading scores. All but two students were able to test out of the third grade before the start of this school year.

State test results to be released this fall are unlikely to show the school in a positive light, however.

"We're prepared to receive an F," said Keith Liechty-Clifford, an APS school improvement coordinator who spends much of his time at I Promise.

"We know that our students come to us low, and it's going to take some time," he said.

The school expects to show growth, he said, which will be a factor in its state accountability once it has more than one year of data.

"The expectations are high," Liechty-Clifford said. "We are all operating under the belief we will not be an 'F' school."

 

Fulfill the prophecy

Be something greater

 

If Davis learned one lesson from her first year leading the I Promise School, it was to be flexible.

"Not everything that looked good on paper flows smoothly," she said. She changed the master schedule three times, trying to find a balance between giving teachers the professional development they need and keeping them in front of their classes.

While she's certain of the difference the family approach is making, she said she doesn’t have it all figured out.

"I wish that I had, like, this secret pill to give these tough-to-reach kids ... I just wish that I could give them a hug and it would make it all better," Davis said.

The school implemented a trauma-based curriculum, which trains teachers to keep in mind what many of these children have endured. In just the first year, the school dealt with a family whose home burned down, several cases of homelessness and at least one instance of domestic violence where a mother first reported her abuse to the counselor in the school’s family center.

Discipline practices focus on getting to the root of why a student is misbehaving.

"Nine times out of 10, a kid is asking for help," Davis said.

During a lunch period, a student walked down the hallway upset and clinging to a wall. He and a teacher sat on the grand stairway of the school's front entrance, where dozens of pairs of James' basketball shoes line the curved walls. They sat for several minutes until the boy opened up about what had happened at lunch to anger him, and how he was going to remedy the situation.

 

Go make a legacy

Manifest destiny

 

It's these trauma-based practices and the family culture more than anything that school leaders believe are transferable to any struggling school.

As part of APS, I Promise receives the same amount of tax dollars as any other school in the district. The foundation pays for additional teachers to make classes smaller and interventionists who focus on the neediest students.

The foundation also paid for renovations to the building, including knocking down walls this summer at teachers' request — also unheard of in most public schools.

As the liaison from the school improvement office at APS, Liechty-Clifford is closely watching what works and what should be shared with other struggling schools.

After one year, he said his outlook on school turnaround has shifted. Initially, he thought, "These kids are so low and they need so much, we don't have time to do all this."

After a month, he said, he understood why the focus on relationships was important.

"I think that was an eye-opener for me in the school improvement office to see how these teachers here and the principal work with every single kid," he said.

The school has some advantages that are difficult to duplicate elsewhere.

Most schools with high rates of poverty also have high rates of student turnover that make sustained improvement difficult. I Promise does not accept students after the third grade, and with a transportation system that buses in students from 60 square miles, children are more easily able to stay at the school when their family goes through a tough time.

The staff also has to interview to be placed at I Promise, and Davis has a say in the hiring.

Because of James, the students are already living in a fishbowl. Whether it's also a bubble — where a perfect set of circumstances came together to find a recipe for success — remains to be seen.

But this school makes high hopes for a living.

"I'm still blown away from the change that we saw just from the first few days of school to the end of the school year," Liechty-Clifford said. "Kids were crying on their way out the door. They didn’t want the school year to be over."

 

Contact reporter Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com, at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.