Brainerd High School leaders and community partners want to rally local residents around the school through a new initiative called Brainerd Together.

The initiative will include project committees, opportunities for organizations to adopt classrooms and large-scale renovations to improve the school in June.

While students were off for a sick day Friday, a few dozen community members gathered at the school for a "fireside chat," as Troy Rogers, Chattanooga's public safety coordinator, called it.

"We grow from things that challenge us," Rogers said. "I want us to talk about things that make us uncomfortable so we can grow. I want everyone to hear the heart of Brainerd."

The conversation, though, did not focus on many of the reported challenges, such as chronically-absent students, low test scores and arrests on campus, at the historically low-performing school.

Instead, Executive Principal Chris James, who is wrapping up his first year leading the school, focused on how the community could unite to help improve the school and support students.

"I've had an amazing year, I've had some great highs and some valleys," James said. "We all know the communities our students come from. And our children who are coming into our school are going out into the community. We want to be excellent."

"Chattanooga doesn't get better if Brainerd doesn't get better," he added. "If the community doesn't rally around Brainerd and schools like Brainerd, these schools won't get better."

James and other school leaders hope to form committees to lead a coordinated effort to improve certain areas of the school, whether it be be the barren room that currently houses the school's athletic trainer or the outdated science labs — two of which are currently closed, James said.

Alison Lebovitz, board member of local education nonprofit UnifiEd, was at Friday's meeting and said a similar effort was launched at Normal Park Museum Magnet when Jill Levine was principal and the school inherited the old middle school, or upper school, building.

Levine now leads the district's Opportunity Zone, which includes and supports Hamilton County's 12 lowest-performing schools, including Brainerd.

"Environment needs excellence," Lebovitz said. "We want to create an environment where every child succeeds and they can go beyond their wildest dreams."

Lauri Moyle, former director of development for local nonprofit Hope for the Inner City, said he previously participated in a similar physical makeover at Orchard Knob Middle School.

"I think there is a health in volunteers working in schools," Moyle said. "The responsibility of the people in the community to be involved in the school system is good for them and it's good for the students."

When asked why the school didn't push for more funds for facility improvements, school leaders said their school board representative, Karitsa Mosley Jones, has advocated for the school and that it's about more than physical improvements.

"The school district is really nothing but the community," James said. "People in the community need to come and see for themselves what is going on in our schools."

James praised Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson's focus on facility improvements and acknowledged that the district is currently undergoing a comprehensive facilities assessment, but he still acknowledged the need to improve and the part that community members could play.

"The more they see people who care about their futures, it changes students' mindsets," he said.

The Brainerd Together initiative, headed by the school's community engagement specialist Eric McKenzie, is looking for partners to join committees to work together, design and renovate spaces within the school from June 15-23.

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