“I really am reminded I can do anything. It just takes hard work.”
Schools across Hamilton County were closed Monday for Presidents Day, but Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy's doors were open and its classrooms full while students spent the day discussing race, gender and determination.
In the morning CGLA's students and teachers went to see the award-winning movie "Hidden Figures," which is about a team of black female mathematicians who played vital roles at NASA during the 1960s. After the movie and a lot of popcorn, students spent hours dissecting the film's characters and message in small group discussions.
Aniyah Clemons, a seventh-grader, said she appreciated how the movie told the truth about women who were overlooked and ignored by historians and storytellers for decades.
"The main girl did math better than a computer," Aniyah said. "But it took so long for her to be recognized."
Watching the movie was empowering, she added, as it shows how black women are just as strong and successful as anyone else.
"I really am reminded I can do anything," Aniyah said. "It just takes hard work."
Aareon Reed sat in a circle with fellow high school classmates and listed several of the obstacles the main character in the movie faced because she was black, noting how the woman never stopped fighting.
"Determination matters," Aareon said. "She didn't give up."
It was also encouraging to see a female engineer in what still seems to be a male-dominated field, she added.
CGLA educates a large share of poor and minority students, and Maryo Beck, the school's principal, said that for years the school hasn't closed its doors on Presidents Day, seizing every opportunity to educate students. He said the day was intended to motivate the girls in their studies, as they learned about successful women who worked in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
"The women [in the movie] were as smart as anyone in the room at NASA, if not smarter," Beck said.
Elaine Swafford, executive director of CGLA, said the purpose of school is to help kids think, and she welcomed the opportunity to break away from the typical school routine.
"It was a good day to have school," she said. " hopefully a light bulb came on for some of our students today."
Swafford has been at the helm of CGLA since 2012. When she started at the school it was on the brink of closure, as it was one of six schools in Hamilton County performing in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide, known as priority schools. Working with a sense of urgency, Swafford and her staff have turned the school around, and the school is consistently posting large academic gains.
CGLA is the district's only school to move off the priority list, as the other five priority schools now face the threat of state takeover.
At the school Monday, teachers said watching the movie alongside their students was powerful, as the girls clapped and cheered during some scenes and gasped at others.
Eriel Sales, an 11th-grader, sat in a circle of chairs in a yellow classroom decorated with posters, and she told her classmates that the movie should serve as a reminder that everyone has potential.
"You shouldn't let where you come from or your gender or race stop you," she said, as girls around the room nodded in agreement.
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.