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Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks during a celebration event Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, at Orchard Knob Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tenn. The event was held to kick off the Opportunity Zone initiative.

On Thursday morning, the teachers and staff at Orchard Knob Middle School corralled their students into the auditorium.

The kids talked over each other, as teenagers do, flicking wads of paper or pen caps at their friends once seated, and a few class clowns were pulled away to sit apart. After a moment, Principal Tiffany Earvin took the microphone and explained why they were there.

"There are now two roads diverging in the Chattanooga streets. It's all about choices," she said Thursday. "It's going to take a whole village if we're going to change our trajectory as a community."

Next to her onstage sat a panel of community and faith leaders, all of whom volunteered to speak during this State of Our Children event and share their perspectives with students facing poverty, unstable homes and an increased risk of being victims of violent crime.

Orchard Knob Middle School is part of Hamilton County's Opportunity Zone — a group of 12 struggling schools in the Brainerd High and Howard School feeder patterns that administrators are targeting for additional support.

Earvin told her students to pay attention, explaining that their futures, and the future of the city, were at stake.

"It begins with you and it begins with me and it's going to take all of us," she said. "Listen. Because the information you're going to get today has never been in a textbook. It's about real life."

The panelists began telling their stories, encouraging the boys in attendance to think about what they want to do and how they plan to get there. Sgt. Josh May with the Chattanooga Police Department said the answers to those questions only become essential during the transition into adulthood.

"The consequences of your decisions become even more important. The older you get, the more eyes you have on you," he said. "You've got a lot of people out here pulling on you and depending on you."

Zac Brown, assistant superintendent of school operations, said Thursday's event was a step in the right direction for students in the Opportunity Zone.

"It's a testament that it takes community and support to make a difference in our children's lives," he said. "If we continue to impress responsibility, endurance and education, they're going to have a bright future."

He also applauded the work of men and women such as Troy Rogers, the city's public safety coordinator and one of the event's organizers, who have built mentoring programs in Chattanooga schools.

"To be a mentor is a sacrifice," he said. "It's an investment if you want to do it right. That's what our kids need. The mentor's got to be there before the kid even knows they need them."

Another panelist, Allen Green, said he came from the same background as many of the boys. He echoed May, telling them they need to develop a plan to end up differently than some of the adults in their lives.

"How many of y'all know someone in jail?" he asked.

Dozens of the boys raised their hands.

"It's real out here. Success is not going to come to you easily. Transitioning from a teenager to a man is a difficult process. You've got to learn how to listen."

"A lot of us were dealt cards that were against us. That's the world. Me, personally, I felt like I was in the world at a time I didn't belong in," he said. "But just because you're in this world, doesn't mean you have to be of this world."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

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