Kindergarten teacher Jamie Behler was the first to open the doors of the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts when it debuted in 1991.
Just over 30 years later, and keeping with tradition, Behler opened the doors to its brand new campus at the former Lakeside Elementary School - a long-awaited moment for staff and parents.
Wednesday was the first day of school for Hamilton County Schools. Work at CSLA is ongoing, but it's ready for younger students, who were welcomed back to a fresh, modern building. Students toured the halls in single-file lines as their teachers pointed out the bathrooms, the music room and the "flex space," which is serving as a gym.
Though rainstorms kept the children inside for recess, it didn't seem to faze them - they were too excited by the newness of it all. The never-used playground would have to wait until the second day of classes.
The $30.7 million new building was decades in the making.
"This school has been promised for over 30 years," Principal Krystal Scarbrough told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in an interview. "And to see the dream become a reality is absolutely incredible. We feel like we are stepping into a legacy that so many people have dreamed up."
The magnet school was created in response to the success of Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. It opened in the former Elbert Long Elementary School on East Brainerd Road, a building constructed in 1949 that was already in disrepair.
In a 1999 facilities review, CSLA was identified as the fifth-worst school facility in the district and was slated for closure, but that didn't happen. The building continued to suffer from water leaks, a shifting foundation and unsealed windows for years.
Despite parent and community protests, CSLA was passed up for a new building several times. In 2019, Hamilton County Schools hired MGT Consulting Group to perform a districtwide facilities audit, which recommended closing 15 schools, including CSLA. Many proposals and plans were made and forgotten as other schools in the area took priority. Finally, Hamilton County commissioners in 2021 approved the new home for the school.
Renovations are still underway, and in the meantime, only grades K-4 will attend the new location. Once renovations are complete in December, grades 5-10 will settle in. The 142,000-square-foot facility will eventually house 1,000 K-12 students, adding 11th and 12th grades as the current sophomores age.
Still under construction is an outdoor amphitheater and movie theater, a science and math lab and a gymnasium. The amphitheater will be used for Paideia activities, Parent Volunteer Coordinator Olivia Clark told the Times Free Press in an interview.
Paideia, CSLA's educational philosophy, synthesizes different types of knowledge and hands-on learning.
Behler said this type of approach to education focuses more on doing and less on textbooks - which is why she has stayed with CSLA for 30 years.
"This is the way I wanted to teach," Behler said in an interview. "I wanted to be able to dress up and to be creative and to have festivals and to do a teddy bear parade through the whole building."