Life as the Teacher Librarian at LeBron James's I PROMISE School

Susan Mongold talks about the excitement and challenges of being on the inaugural staff at the new public school in Akron, OH.

The first day of school is always chaotic, but for Susan Mongold, there is unlikely to be another like the one this year.

“The first day was a media day really,” says Mongold, teacher librarian at the I PROMISE school in Akron OH. “LeBron was here. ESPN took over my Think Tank. It was really exciting.”

Yes, LeBron James and ESPN took over her ­library. Not exactly the typical day of a public school ­librarian—or any librarian.

I PROMISE is better known to most as LeBron James’s school, a new public school in Akron that was established in partnership by the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools (APS). On that celebrated first day of photo ops and motivational speeches, Mongold watched her library become a mobile TV studio. Equipment and people were everywhere. In the only calm and clear spot sat James—one of the best basketball players of all time, philanthropist, and Arkon native—doing an interview with the sports network. Mongold looked on and laughed at how proud she once was at the media production she did with students in her previous job.

Mongold didn’t plan to be here. She wasn’t looking to leave her old position when a string of events brought her to this ambitious place.

“It was like the stars and moons and all lined up and here I am,” she says.

Mongold was the district librarian at Woodridge Local Schools in Peninsula, OH. Then a tax levy didn’t pass.

“We all know as school librarians, that’s often a bad sign for us,” she says.

She was correct. Mongold found herself out of work. But she heard about this opportunity in Akron and thought it sounded interesting. She got the job, and since that July 30 whirlwind of a first day, has found it to be more than interesting –it’s constant movement, challenging, and a test of time management.

“This feels like it’s the job I have been preparing for and searching for my whole career,” says Mongold. “I have the space that we fight for. I have resources. It’s exciting. It’s exhausting, but it’s also spiritually energizing. Every day you go home and you reflect on what you’ve done and think ‘How do I make a difference tomorrow? How do I make it work? How do I reach that kid, so that he’s not running around the classroom while I’m trying to run centers?’

“It’s that constant reflection. I love that it’s a constant movement of my brain and constant thinking about what I’m going to do next and how I am going to get these kids on board.”

I PROMISE has 240 third and fourth graders who had been identified by APS as behind in critical academic areas, and were selected through a random drawing. (The school will gradually add students and grades until it is a first through eighth grade school by 2022.) I PROMISE will operate year-round programming that includes seven weeks of camp and the school days run 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The school also provides free breakfast, lunch, and snack to all kids, offers 15 minutes of social emotional learning every day, and gives the students an extra hour “Illumination Period” at the end of each day. Twice a week, the period is an elective club—robotics, STEM for girls, book club, soccer, golf, and more. The other days, the extra hour is used for reading and writing, extra help in math, and a project-based learning ­service project.

Mongold’s teaching schedule is very different than at her previous district. She and the other “specials” teachers have a fixed schedule, seeing each of the six classes in each grade, plus a flex schedule when they go into the classrooms.

The opportunity for the flex schedule excited Mongold, who initially thought about helping with research and adding to the classroom learning. Soon, though, she realized that would need to wait. They have to help the kids build the foundation for reading and math first.

“We’re just trying to get them so they have those basic skills down, so that they can start to do the research and the more involved stuff,” she says. “We’re trying to get them on level.”

Mongold laughs with her class during a lesson.

Mongold also has planning periods, but there is no time for lounging around when LeBron James is involved. Every minute counts for these kids.

“Before I was a district librarian, so if something took me five minutes longer, a few minutes here or there, it wasn’t a big deal. Now, I have my Google calendar and it’s constantly ‘Bing, go somewhere else,’ ‘Bing, go somewhere else,’” says Mongold, who jokes she has lost weight going up and down the stairs to and from her basement library space.

That big, open space with its flex seating has presented a challenge at times so far this school year.

“They’re pretty excited in there,” she says of the kids. “We took a while to work on, ‘No you just can’t come in and do cartwheels.’”

She teaches library lessons, runs centers, and has worked with them on their chromebooks (the school is one-to-one, or what I PROMISE calls “one-to-the world”). Over the summer, she was given money to start the library’s book collection, which she calls “small but mighty.”

“I reached out to teachers for requests,” says Mongold, who also used the Ohio Department of Education’s Learning Standards as a guide for nonfiction. “I relied on my experience as an elementary school librarian to make sure I had the ‘fan favorites’ covered in both the fiction and nonfiction collections—animal books, dinosaurs, sports, Bad Kitty, Junie B.”

She compared her choices to APS’ OverDrive collection and used the analysis tool on Titlewave.com from Follett to confirm that she had a variety of books for the students and teachers.

Mongold has three or four books per student, plus the access to Overdrive and other digitial resources. A curriculum resource room on another floor houses leveled readers, not part of her collection.

She runs the robotics club on Mondays and Fridays.

“They really enjoy it, but again that’s where we have that challenge of [reminding them] we’ve got to have some self-control, because we’re not just playing,” she says. “We’re playing to learn. It’s not a free for all. That’s where the biggest challenge comes in. I want to do that stuff. I want to play all day. I want to get to the point where they can play all day with me and I know that they’ve learned something, that they’ve grown, that they get it.”

Currently, the robotics club is programming robots to avoid obstacles. Mongold also brings in creative writing, having students write a short story about why the obstacles are there.

“It’s a lot of just keeping them busy, keeping their brains busy,” she says.

The administration knows that these packed days can take a toll on its teachers, and they support staff in various ways. Every Wednesdays, substitutes come in and help teachers in the mornings then take over classes in the afternoons. During that time, the teachers have professional development.

“We’re constantly talking about social and emotional issues, constantly talking about how we can get them back on track,” says Mongold.

They also have various programs to keep the teachers mentally and physically fit. A psychologist comes in and teaches them mindfulness and twice a week, they are led through a workout.

“It’s pretty nice,” she says. “They’re really trying to keep us centered, help us stay healthy, and maintain that focus and that healthy lifestyle that we need.”

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Teena Lauth

So I hesitate to "rah, rah" any school that claims to be “public”, but does their student selection through lottery. Does the school accept special needs students, ENL students, all students that represent the area in which it is located? If there are discipline issues, do the children then get sent back to the “regular” public school? What about the teachers, are they fairly compensated for the extra hours that they are now putting in, are they still part of their collective bargaining unit and have a contract that reflects those new hours. If the above criteria is not met, then a duck by any other name is a charter school with lots of shiny new things…and a librarian.

Posted : Sep 21, 2018 05:55


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