This story was updated Feb. 22, 2018, at 11:20 p.m.
Christopher James is wasting no time.
The same day that Hamilton County Schools announced it had hired the Knox County educator to take the helm at Brainerd High School, James was walking the hallways of the school, meeting with administrators and staff, pointing out changes he wants to make to the school's teacher lounge and moving his "lucky crates" that he's had since he was a teacher into the principal's office.
James' first day is March 5, but since he applied for the position, he's been anxious to get to know the community.
"You've got to know the community before you can come in and say, 'I want to help the community,'" James said. "You've got to know what it used to be, what it looks like and what it wants to be."
James, now an assistant principal at Fulton High School in Knox County, was one of 24 applicants for the Brainerd High School principal position that has been open since December, when the school's previous principal, Uras Agee, moved to Washington Alternative School to serve as its exceptional education coordinator.
Brainerd is one of two high schools in the district's Opportunity Zone, an initiative launched by Superintendent Bryan Johnson last fall to provide support for the district's highest-needs schools. Brainerd and schools in its feeder pattern also belong to the five-school Partnership Network, managed by the state and the district — a partnership a long time in the making that was approved by the school board last week.
Of the 24 applicants, only 2 came from within the district, said Jill Levine, chief of the Opportunity Zone.
"In the past, sometimes it's been hard to find qualified candidates and interest in our more challenging schools," Levine said. "The more challenging the circumstances, the more leadership matters, and there are a lot of challenges at Brainerd."
It was Brainerd's challenges, and strong community support and involvement, that led the district to conduct an nontraditional search process for the new principal.
Last Friday, the extensive selection process culminated in a full day of school tours, faculty and community panels, interviews with the Opportunity Zone leadership team and more.
Seven candidates were invited to visit the school after an initial screening process of 16 individuals.
"Our goal in this process was to honor the voices and insights from our different stakeholders that have been so committed to Brainerd High School and its community," said Carmen Carson, coordinator of human capital for the Opportunity Zone and organizer of the hiring committee. "We set aside a day of rigorous interviews, presentations, and tours so that those stakeholders could see that we sought out the best and the brightest to lead this work of transformation."
Members of the community panel were resolute in their recommendation of James as the top candidate, Carson said.
"Christopher James addressed the whole child and had innovative ideas," said school board member Karitsa Mosley Jones of District 5, which includes Brainerd, in a statement.
The community panel also included two student voices — Keichemriya Jones and Christian Thomas, both juniors at Brainerd, who were able to share their thoughts on the school and James.
"It was a great honor to me to be selected for the panel," said Thomas, who moved from Central High this school year. "I'm glad because it allowed me to see the future where Brainerd wants to go, and I think Mr. James can help us get there."
Keichemriya Jones echoed his thoughts, adding that she was encouraged the community was able to have a voice.
"They should have a voice because everyone needs to be a part of it," she said. "Everyone should know that Brainerd isn't what it is portrayed to be. ... Everyone's a family. Every house has its problems, but everyone is a family."
Before joining Fulton High, James worked at West High School in Knoxville after moving to Tennessee from Atlanta, where he began his career as an educator at SIATech Charter High School, an accelerated dropout recovery program, in 2002.
A Louisiana native, James is a graduate of Mississippi Valley State University, holds a master's degree in education from the University of Phoenix and a master's in education specialist in educational administration from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is a former teacher of the year for Cobb County Schools in Georgia and is an Eagle Scout.
James said he didn't originally imagine he would spend his career in education — he wanted to be a lawyer — but his work with high school dropouts and students in special education inspired him.
In his first 30 days at Brainerd, James hopes to get to know the school and its community.
"I'm going to get in and learn the students and the teachers and hear their voices," he said. "I want to listen and see what are those places where I can really help and what can we fix together."