On July 27, 2009, 75 girls made statewide history when they entered the doors of Tennessee's first single-gender public charter school, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.
From that inaugural sixth-grade class of 50 girls, eight recently made history again when they graduated from CGLA.
According to a release, as sixth-graders, 45 percent of their class scored below the basic level in mathematics on their Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests, and by their freshman year in 2012, they faced the threat of CGLA being closed by the state because of failing academic scores.
That same year, Dr. Elaine Swafford was brought on as director of CGLA.
By the inaugural sixth-grade class' sophomore year, everyone in the class achieved TCAP scores at or above basic level. As juniors, their improved TCAP Algebra scores helped put the school in fourth place of all Hamilton County schools.
Swafford said several factors have contributed to the improved scores. First, she built a team and spoke to her teachers about what to teach, which she continued to monitor to hold everyone accountable, and she said she made an effort to convince the students they were smarter than their failing scores indicated.
Swafford also implemented an after-school tutoring program, and extended regular school hours each day.
Another change that has taken place since the school was founded is which students CGLA is allowed to admit. In 2009, charter schools could only accept students from the lowest-performing "priority schools" — the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools in the state — but in 2011 the legislation changed, allowing charter schools to admit any student on a first-come, first-served basis, said Swafford.
She said CGLA is still building up its number of students in the upper grades, which lost students when the school began to struggle several years ago.
Swafford noted that CGLA reversed its position to the top 5 percent of schools in the state as measured by overall student achievement and year-over-year progress when it became a Tennessee Reward School in 2013, and ACT scores have been steadily improving.
Of the 2013-2015 graduates, only one student scored a 19, the minimum score to be accepted into many post-secondary programs, she said.
This year, six students scored an average of 23.2, and one scored a 28, becoming the first CGLA alumna to earn a full ride to college. She will attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville this fall.
"We're seeing a lot of firsts," said Swafford.
In the future, she plans to change the school's grading system to standard-based grading, and put more of a focus on literacy as well as on teachers' cultural competence when working with students, she said.