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Mekal Smith, center, speaks during the State of Our Boys panel at Orchard Knob Middle School on Thursday, March 29, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Smith is a Howard High School graduate who works for the FBI.

Almost a year ago, Orchard Knob Middle School lost one of its own. A student was killed by a bullet, and weeks later, another student tried to take their own life.

The school's principal, Tiffany Earvin, said there was "diminished hope" among the student body, especially boys.

"Many times, our kids don't understand that there's a true power to understanding their purpose," she said. Weeks after the young student was killed, Earvin brought together more than 50 men from the community to address and mentor the boys, and that initiative has continued.

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Mekal Smith, a Howard High School graduate who works for the FBI, speaks during the State of Our Boys panel at Orchard Knob Middle School on Thursday, March 29, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The third "State of Our Boys" summit was held Thursday morning in the school's auditorium, followed by breakout sessions for the school's young men and women, led by members of the community.

"We've taken a half day of time we could be in the classroom to address social issues that you face every day," Earvin said to her students.

Many of the students who attend Orchard Knob Middle School come from communities of concentrated poverty that spans generations. Their lives at home are sometimes unstable and their neighborhoods are riddled with crime — as reflected in Wednesday's indictments of 54 gang members.

Many students also come from single-parent households, Earvin said, so they are growing up in environments both at home and school that are dominated by women.

"As the principal of this school, I can teach you a lot of things, but I can't teach you to be a man," Earvin told her boys.

Thursday's event, focused on recruiting and connecting Orchard Knob students with mentors from the community, began with a panel discussion. Boys submitted questions that were answered by men from the community including clergy, law enforcement and other leaders.

The first question the men addressed was "How do I survive in this world?"

Most of the questions that followed had the same tone: How did you become a man? How does it feel to be a man? How do you accomplish your goals in life? What does it mean to be a gentleman?

Mekal Smith, one of the panelists, is from Chattanooga. He grew up in the same neighborhoods as the students and graduated from The Howard School in 2012. Now 24, Smith works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and thought it was important to return and give back to the boys.

"I knew that growing up without a father I was at a disadvantage," Smith told the students in response to the question, "Why do some men stick around to see their children grow up?"

"So I sought out guidance from my teachers, from my role models," he said.

Smith hoped the boys would see him as someone who knew the struggles they faced, that he had faced them also, and see the life he now leads as an example.

"Howard was my most proud years of my life," Smith said. "In that atmosphere, though, you have a lot of negativity when you are there, and you have to know you can get out."

Sgt. Josh May, who leads the Chattanooga Police Department's anti-gang efforts, encouraged the boys to think about what motivates them.

"Some of you have seen things I've never seen and been through things I've never been through," May said. "Everyone in life has what pushes you do you want to be stuck in the place where you are at in life?"

Purpose is a powerful theme at Orchard Knob — it's something they emphasize every day during their 5- to 7-minute daily motivational, Earvin said.

"At the end of the day, each and every one of you has a power and a purpose," said Troy Rogers, public safety coordinator for the city, to the audience.

Research shows that trauma — whether from violence or poverty — has a toxic effect on a student's academic performance and success. Nearly 85 percent of Orchard Knob's students are considered economically disadvantaged, and the school has struggled for years to increase student performance.

The middle school is one of 12 schools in the Opportunity Zone, launched by Superintendent Bryan Johnson in the fall, to provide more support and resources to the district's highest-needs schools. The school will be one of four pilots for a community school concept launching in the fall that aims to bring more resources and programs to address student and family needs.

The girls of Orchard Knob weren't forgotten during Thursday's event.

They spent time during the panel writing letters to their future selves about their dreams and goals. Afterward, they had breakout sessions with community members where they talked about relationships and how they should expect to be treated.

Overall, Earvin hopes that bringing in community members provides her students with more support.

"This gives our boys an outlet, to hold students accountable, to serve as an extension to their families," she said.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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