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Orchard Knob Middle School principal Crystal Sorrells second from left, talks to teachers as they board a bus to take a tour Saturday of area recreation and community centers.

There's nothing like seeing for yourself.

Administrators and social workers can talk all they want about the tough environments where inner-city kids grow up. They can throw around terms like food deserts, gang hot spots and public housing.

But teachers at Orchard Knob Middle School saw it all firsthand, hitting the streets with a three-hour bus tour Saturday morning to see the neighborhoods where their students live, the stores they shop at and the community centers they hang around.

The trip was meant to give teachers a deeper understanding of their students and a better footing for building relationships with families.

"I think you need to see it and feel it for yourself," said Principal Crystal Sorrells.

That's important for all teachers, but especially for the 17 who are new to the school this year - the first year in a multimillion-dollar effort to turn around performance at five of the county's most troubled schools, including Orchard Knob Middle.

The tour topped off a week of work for most of the school's teachers, who have been busy planning and training for the school's big turnaround year.

On Saturday, the big yellow school bus took teachers to the now-shuttered Harriet Tubman housing complex and drove through the Woodlawn Apartments, where trash bags hung over windows, people sat on the curbs and many of the surrounding homes were boarded up.

"Imagine our kids at the bus stop here as early as 6 a.m. waiting to come to school," said Assistant Principal Rashaad Williams.

He showed them the gas station in Avondale where people mostly buy beer, cigarettes and chicken. And the Little Caesar's where he sometimes gives hungry kids $5 to buy a pizza.

The bus went on to Rogers Super Market on East Main Street, one of only a few places to get fresh meat and produce in the inner city.

"I don't even know where we are," said one teacher on the bus.

The 40 or so teachers crammed through Rogers' two checkout lanes to purchase sodas, chips and candy - the busiest the store has been in a while.

Parents were notified of the tour, so teachers picked up registration papers and shook hands with some parents and students along the way.

Orchard Knob's students are mostly poor and black. But the school's zone is vast.

From Rogers Super Market, the bus made its way west. It passed through the revitalized Main Street area, where the Bluegrass Grill had a line out the door at least 20 deep with hungry people waiting for breakfast. Within seconds, the bus was in another world. It stopped near the College Hill Courts public housing complex as Williams explained some of the community's past efforts to improve the Westside. But he also drew attention to the businesses that sit inside the school zone.

"A lot of them want to help," he said. "We just have to ask."

Many teachers couldn't believe the size of the school's zone. It covers most of downtown, stretching from the foot of Missionary Ridge west to the Tennessee River and south nearly to the foot of Lookout Mountain. The principal asked them to think about what happens when a kid on the Westside or Southside misses the bus. No wonder they show up tired, frustrated and hungry.

"It's crazy how many areas our kids come from," said Kristin Roberts, who is in her third year teaching at Orchard Knob. "The zone is just so big."

The trip reminded first-year teacher Ashley Thomas of all the mission trips she and her friends have taken. Thomas has gone to help the forlorn in places like the Dominican Republic and Mexico. But she's never been to these parts of Chattanooga, where the conditions reminded her of the developing world.

"It's right here in our own backyard," she said. "It's right here."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at 423-757-6249 or