Dean Cress had it made. Twice.
He had a successful career in the private sector, even starting his own chemical company, which is now publicly traded. But late in life, he switched careers to teaching and taught advanced science courses at Signal Mountain Middle-High School. And he loved it.
But Cress, now 64, is nearing retirement. So he set his sights on Brainerd High, an academically struggling school where he figured he could make his mark.
He left behind thousands of dollars in top-notch science equipment at Signal Mountain and entered a school that barely had working microscopes. But Cress is attracting grant funding, bringing new revenue into the school. And he's one of several teachers upping the bar. He hopes to offer more upper-level science courses starting next year.
Such offerings are more in line with Brainerd's renewed focus on improving academic performance. Other teachers already are offering Advanced Placement and honors classes in an attempt to reverse the school's trajectory.
Brainerd's perpetual poor performance landed the school in the state's crosshairs. After finishing in the bottom 5 percent of all Tennessee schools academically, Brainerd is now operating within a federal school turnaround effort called the iZone. That effort brought new money to Brainerd, but also mandated changes.
Brainerd is working not just to move out of the iZone, but to push its performance into the top quarter of all Tennessee schools. That's an aggressive goal for a school where only about half of students graduated on time just a couple of years ago.
"They call them turnaround schools for a reason," Cress said. "We're under a fair amount of pressure from the state."
Teachers such as Cress are breathing new life into the mostly poor and mostly black high school. A team of new administrators took over Brainerd last year. And this August more than half the school's core faculty changed. Now there are multiple layers of student and teacher supports. As soon as a student begins to fall behind in a class, an academic interventionist swoops in. And academics are driving school culture, from pep rallies to special reward breakfasts.
School leaders say discipline has improved. Two years ago it wasn't uncommon to see kids hanging in the hallways or courtyard during class time. Nowadays, the halls are nearly silent between bells. Assistant Principal Charles Mitchell said many teachers specifically requested placement at Brainerd because of its transition.
"The reality is we have a chance to do something special: getting our kids out of the bottom 5 percent, improving test scores and improving graduation rates," Mitchell said.
Those results started improving last year, before the wholesale change in teaching staff. The newly released Tennessee Report Card shows the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in Alegbra I nearly doubled, from about 11 percent in 2012 to 20 percent in 2013. The graduation rate improved from 52.7 percent to 69 percent in 2013.
"Their scores in every area have improved," said Marvin Lott, the county's director of high schools, "and the graduation rate went up considerably. Just the culture of the school -- walking into the building you can feel it's a different school."
By no means is Brainerd's mission accomplished. Even with year-over-year improvements, its test scores and graduation rates still fell far below state and county averages. In 2013, only five students -- 4.4 percent -- met eligibility requirements for the state's HOPE Scholarship, according to the report card.
For now, Brainerd administrators are focused on the performance and progress of their students. Student data is tracked at all schools. But here, Assistant Principal Jacqueline Cothran rarely lets that data out of her sight, carrying around a fat three-ring binder full of each student's progress.
"I know how Johnny did last year. And how he's doing this year. And how he's doing on his assessments every two weeks," she said.
Aside from rewarding students who excel with various incentive programs, Cothran said the school is focusing more on struggling students. Interventionists stand ready to help those who are having trouble so students get help when they need it, not after they fail.
"As soon as we see the student is dropping off, we intervene," she said. "We don't wait until the end of the nine weeks."
Teachers say the refreshed staff is bringing in new ideas and new ways of teaching. At a school as tough as Brainerd, it can be easy to become disheartened, Cress said. Back when student behavior spiraled out of control, former teachers were less willing to offer hands-on activities like lab experiments, Cress said.
"It was just hard," Cress said. "I'm sympathetic to that. I can understand it. But it doesn't solve the problem if you just give up."
Cress believes that hands-on activities are key to getting students interested in school. But they also open up new possibilities, letting kids explore possible future careers and areas of study.
"I think what happens with time in any school that struggles is not just the teachers but the students become a little more fatalistic. Everybody's weighed down," Cress said. "I think we're going to show improvement on those test scores. I'm pretty confident of that. But more important than that is helping the kids develop a vision for what they can do in their lives."
A new robotics program will expose students to engineering concepts as they design and build their own robot. And Cress hopes new grant money will allow him to purchase microscopes and other materials for science labs.
But it's not just new teachers who are pushing change.
Economics and government teacher Dale Dworak, in his eighth year at Brainerd, said the new administration has made him work harder, and work differently. He's lecturing less and pushing students to interact with each other more. He said the new administration, led by Principal Uras Agee, has students behaving better and coming to class more. Plus, he feels more support from administrators.
"Two or three years ago, kids always had a reason to be out of class," Dworak said. "Now they're in class and they're learning the information. The administration is serious about that."
Dworak says kids don't always appreciate that relentless focus on academics. But some, like sophomore Kadarius Scott, welcomes the change in environment. Scott wants to go to college and hopes to eventually become a teacher at Brainerd High.
"I feel a difference," he said. "The state is really focusing on us. We have teachers that want to be here. They're ready to teach. And kids are ready to learn."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.