IF YOU GO
• What: "Odyssey 2011: A Journey of Rising Stars" luncheon and awards ceremony with guest speaker Soledad O'Brien
• When: Noon, May 10
• Where: Chattanooga Trade and Convention Center
• Price: $75 at Krystal Building, One Union Square, Suite 505, or www.cglaonline.com
Noted CNN journalist Soledad O'Brien will be the keynote speaker at a May 10 fundraising luncheon to benefit Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.
Speaking with the Chattanooga Times Free Press last week, O'Brien said she hopes to inspire young women and the community with her own story of perseverance.
"I try to demystify what I've done," O'Brien said. "I demystify the magic of being successful. That magic is showing up and working hard. The magic of being successful is peppering people with questions when you don't know what you're doing. The magic is found in sticking it out even when everything is going wrong."
O'Brien will deliver her talk at "Odyssey 2011: A Journey of Rising Stars"That's its official title luncheon and awards ceremony. The event is organized by Young Women's Leadership Academy Foundation, the charitable arm of Girls Leadership Academy.
During the luncheon, one woman in a science, technology, engineering or math career will be awarded the first Supernova Award for outstanding accomplishments. Two students from the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy will receive awards for academic achievements and community involvement.
The academy opened in 2009. One of two charter schools in Hamilton County, it is a girls-only, math- and science-intensive school funded by taxpayer dollars but managed by a board and administrators.
Founders wanted to give struggling students from failing schools exposure to a more intensive academic environment.
But the state and local funding isn't enough for the school to fully achieve its mission, said Maxine Bailey, the foundation's executive director and co-founder of the school.
"The school gets some public funding," Bailey said. "But it's not enough, so we're holding fundraisers to bridge the gap between the public funds and our other costs."
Bringing O'Brien for this event was important because she embodies the mission of the school, Bailey said.
"We said that no matter what it takes, we just had to have Soledad O'Brien for this event," she said. "Through her reporting, it's obvious she's a lifelong learner. We want that to be a concept the girls embrace."
A Harvard graduate, O'Brien is the daughter of an Afro-Cuban mother and Australian-Italian father who met as students at Johns Hopkins University.
In her professional career, O'Brien has worked in Boston, San Francisco and then New York upon joining NBC News.
She joined CNN in 2003 and has won acclaim for her "In America" reporting in which she covers social issues ranging from race and poverty to education and sexuality. In 2010, she released her memoir, "The Next Big Story: My Journey Through the Land of Possibilities."
Her latest project, "Don't Fail Me," looks at public school achievement in the United States. The latest installment brought her to Tennessee for reporting on the state's efforts to improve math and science scores on standardized tests. Tennessee has continually lagged the national average, and scores plummeted this year when the state revamped its benchmarks to more closely align with national standards.
"Tennessee, like a lot of states, was basically lying to parents about how well their kids were doing on standardized tests," O'Brien said. "People were rating high in the tests ... but when they actually went to national tests they weren't proficient at all. In fact, they were failing."
Only 2 percent of Girls Leadership Academy students performed at or above grade level in math on those same tests last year, but school officials said they expected an initial dip in achievement during their first year at the school.
O'Brien, who also will address some students in addition to school supporters, said she hopes her talk inspires.
"All these girls will be challenged, as we all are, in some way, shape or form, and sometimes it's just about making really thoughtful decisions and understanding that your destiny is in your own control," O'Brien said.
Students at Girls Leadership Academy entered a lottery to be admitted, and the slots were highly sought after. Taking that first step could be seminal in improving their lives, O'Brien said.
"Sometimes, success is found when if something doesn't exist, people go out and they demand it," she said.