JB-Akron's 1st First Day

By Theresa Cottom
Beacon Journal staff writer

When the Sisters of Notre Dame opened the Julie Billiart School 63 years ago, they started with just 14 students in the music house of an academy.

On Tuesday, 63 years later, the Julie Billiart School in Akron (JB Akron) opened its doors for the first time to exactly 14 students.

“To me, it’s providential that really, this has been God’s plan for us to bring this school to fruition,” said Lannie Davis-Frecker, president of Julie Billiart Schools in Lyndhurst and Akron. “It has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears … and we feel so blessed to be in Akron.”

JB Akron, which had its first first-day of school ever on Tuesday, serves kids who have moderate learning and social differences, like high-functioning autism, ADD/ADHD, dyslexia and anxiety. The school, a private Catholic school, is sponsored by the Sisters of Notre Dame, but kids of all faiths are welcome.

JB Akron is in West Akron in the former Christ United Methodist Church on Mineola Avenue. School officials decided to expand four years ago after it outgrew its Lyndhurst location, and since then, Jason Wojnicz, the principal of JB Akron, and others have worked hundreds of hours preparing the space for use. Wojnicz said every detail in the building is intentional, from the toys and technology to the carpet and lighting, to create a safe and comfortable environment for kids.

“This was never finished until the students walked in today,” Wojnicz said. “It’s finally nice to kind of see why we did everything the way they did.”

First day

Wojnicz was the first person nearly every child saw walking into their first day of school, many of them greeting him by name and giving him a high-five. Some kids held tight to their parents’ hands, while others walked in beaming and darted straight to the classroom.

When 5-year-old Nolan Gearheart walked through the door for his first day of kindergarten, he pushed his head into his mom Elaine’s tummy and pretended to snore.

“He is a little overwhelmed,” said Gearheart, who lives in Wadsworth. “He had a small meltdown this morning, but then we got in the car and listened to his favorite songs and it was OK.”

Gearheart said tears were typical the first couple days she dropped him off during his preschool years. But last year, when he had a fire drill on the fourth day of school that “scared him to death,” Gearheart dropped a crying Nolan off every day for the next month.

It wasn’t until this February that Nolan was diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

During the school day on Tuesday, though, the only Gearheart tears were Elaine’s in a mix of relief and normal back-to-school woes.

“I feel good,” Gearheart said. “I feel lighter … I just think he’s going to do really well here. [The school] will grow with him too, so that’s nice.”

Class in session

JB Akron currently uses two classrooms — one for kindergarteners and one for first- and second-graders. The plan is for the school to host grades K-8 by 2020.

During the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day, kids will learn core subjects and go through any needed therapy sessions that therapists will integrate into the classroom setting.

Julie Billiart classrooms are a place where fidgeting is embraced, curling up in a tent is perfectly acceptable and jumping on a trampoline may even be encouraged.

On Tuesday, first grade teacher Gina Edgehouse moved through the classroom and got to know her students, evaluating what adjustments might need to be made for the rest of the year. At maximum, the student-teacher ratio is 6:1 at Julie Billiard Schools, giving Edgehouse and other teachers the chance to work closely with and observe their students.

For instance, if Edgehouse saw a child lose focus on his assignment and stand up, she could ask him to jump on the trampoline for a few minutes. Likewise, if a child gets overwhelmed, he could take a break in a cozy tent in the classroom.

When she saw 6-year-old Brady Delio of Akron having some issues with his markers, she calmly told him how to handle the situation.

Once they resolved the issue, he threw his arms around her for a hug.

“I like you,” Brady said.

“I like you, too,” Edgehouse responded.

“I like you more,” Brady said.

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