A Model to Follow

Leadership at the LeBron James I Promise School
Posted on 04/20/2018
Image of Brandi Davis, Principal of I Promise School(courtesy Theresa Cottom, Ohio.com/Akron Beacon Journal)

Brandi Davis envisions a school full of rock stars.

Not wild-haired, guitar-slinging rock stars but a staff of rock-star teachers who are passionate and innovative — a staff that wants to cultivate relationships with students while pushing them to achieve.

By that definition, Davis, who was recently named principal of the new I Promise School opening this summer, is seen by those she works with as a rock star herself.

“I just can’t think of anyone else who really understands the kids, who cares for our kids and who’s there for them,” said Superintendent David James. “As I’ve been involved with events, Brandi’s always there helping out. She’s not just an instructional leader, but she’s also a cheerleader for the program.”

The I Promise School is a partnership between the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools. It will open July 30 to 240 third- and fourth-graders in a temporary home at 400 W. Market St. By 2022-23, it will be a fully integrated school for kids in grades 1-8.

The school is targeting kids who are at risk of falling behind their peers academically.

The curriculum will be infused with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and take into account the struggles and traumas in students’ lives while providing “social-emotional learning” and wraparound services for the kids and their families.

Social-emotional learning helps students “acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions,” according to the nonprofit national Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

Students will be chosen to attend the school based on a lottery system.

Davis is determined to continue the work she started in helping at-risk youth when she joined the LeBron James Family Foundation seven years ago and make the school a new standard of excellence, not just for the Akron districtbut for districts around the country.

“Being principal of the I Promise School is my purpose, my calling,” Davis said. “To be more than just a traditional school principal but to tie in a social-emotional curriculum, to bring in wraparound supports for the families, just to have an open and welcoming communal atmosphere — that is my dream utopian school.”

Davis has worked in Akron Public Schools for 18 years, starting first as a teacher and rising through the ranks to become the principal of Schumacher elementary.

She joined the LeBron James Family Foundation in 2011 as a member of its advisory board, where her influence was widespread. She was one of the first to advocate for family involvement in the foundation’s programs. Parent involvement soon became a key pillar to the foundation and led to the development of the foundation’s “We Are Family” philosophy.

Davis even caught the attention of LeBron James himself, who named her one of his “12 Ohio Heroes” and designed a special pair of Nike shoes in her honor. (She and the NBA star have the only two pairs that were created.)

So when she was asked to work on the design and development of the I Promise School, Davis set her sights on the principal position, excited for the opportunity to continue groundbreaking work in the city where she grew up.

“When I heard about this school and when I was tapped to work on design and development, I said, ‘This has to be mine,’” Davis said. “So I definitely did everything possible in preparing myself to give a rock star interview each and every time.”

Davis went through a rigorous interview process that consisted of a questionnaire, a panel interview, a 15-minute presentation, a 45-minute writing prompt, a behavioral event interview and, finally, a one-on-one interview with Superintendent David James.

Of the 35 people who applied, only two sat down with the superintendent for a final interview.

“We definitely wanted somebody with strong instructional background,” said Keith Leichty, the family liaison for the foundation and Akron schools. “We know that we’re working with at-risk youth, so we wanted someone passionate … who’s also not afraid to get down in the trenches.”

Her meeting with Superintendent James was on a Friday. By that afternoon, while she was in another meeting, Davis got the call offering her the position.

“I was screaming,” she said.

She was invited to a board meeting the next Monday, where the superintendent recommended her for the position and she was introduced as the new principal.

“That’s when I, like, exhaled,” Davis said. “I was nervous, anxious, but now it’s nothing but excitement. It’s official, and I can just continue with the work that we started.”

New school
Davis had a large hand in creating the school’s curriculum while on the design and development team.

The curriculum features traditional academic lessons that follow state standards, but it also has elements to tap into social-emotional learning, like “be best” restorative circles and daily breakfast in the classroom. The school will also feature a family resource center to serve as a “one-stop shop” for families to get any support they need.

The next step to realizing her vision is getting that rock-star staff in place. Davis has sat in all teacher interviews, which were also rigorous and multi-dimensional to find teachers “unafraid to explore possibilities.”

The 12 core third- and fourth-grade teachers were recently hired, and the rest of the staff is set to be in place by the end of the month.

Davis said she’s gone to different conferences and schools across the eastern half of the country to determine if what the I Promise School is doing aligns with the best practices she sees elsewhere.

She and others in the district know the school is likely to garner national attention, not just because of a star athlete attached to it but also because of its attempt to roll a number of best educational practices into one.

“People have to remember that when you have a spotlight on you, those lights are hot,” David James said. “But I have a lot of confidence that Brandi will be able to pull it off. As a professional, I think she’ll be able to deal with the school in spite of the publicity and all the attention.”

Davis is aware of the challenges she’ll face.

“I know that I have to move beyond my traditional approach that I used at Schumacher because I have such a high caliber of staff and this school is such a unique and innovative place,” Davis said.

But Davis has confidence in herself and in the school.

“I’m saying it like it’s going to happen because it is, because we have such a solid foundation built … and a great rock star staff in place,” Davis said. “It’s going to happen.”

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