A few years ago, while looking for a new career challenge, veteran Hamilton County school administrator Maryo Beck kept focusing on Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy as his most compelling option.
"I just wanted to tackle something different," he said Wednesday as he walked across the CGLA campus in Highland Park. "I wanted to have an impact on these girls."
As 23 banners of appreciation hanging in CGLA's newly remodeled gym declared a few minutes later, there are a lot of very good people determined to make a positive impact on the lives of the 350 girls attending grades 6-12 at the public charter school on the former Tennessee Temple campus.
Led by the philanthropic spirit of Karen J. Hutton — CEO of the Chattanooga-based Hutton real estate, development and construction company — the Temple High gym went from a neglected, water-damaged mess to a sparkling, state-of-the-art facility that will seat 800 spectators for basketball games, provide coaching offices, an injury/training room, a concession stand, LED lighting and more.
"When we purchased the property, the gym was not in very good condition," Beck said just prior to the dedication ceremony. "It was always one of the talking points. Now we have a place to work out and play games. This weekend we're even hosting a regional robotics competition in that building."
The workload was enormous. But so was Hutton's determination to make a difference at CGLA, which was founded in 2009 with a mission statement to, according to the school's website, "provide girls and young women with a rigorous college preparatory education focused on science, technology, engineering, the arts and math (STEAM) in a supportive environment that nurtures self-confidence, inspires leadership, encourages critical thinking and promotes academic excellence."
"The goal," CGLA executive director Elaine Swafford said, "is to give disadvantaged girls a much advantaged education."
In other words, a private school education for free.
But Swafford and the school's board also wanted to honor Hutton and her oversight of the $700,000-plus project by naming the gym for her.
Or as board member Virginia Anne Sharber noted in a press release: "Karen Hutton is a force of nature. Not only has she been incredibly generous with her support for the gym, she is a role model for our students, demonstrating success that results from hard work, perseverance and commitment."
For her part, Hutton seemed to wish the board had chosen a different name.
"(The name) was not my intent, not my desire, not my dream," she said during the ceremony. "In the future we might auction the name off to get more money for the school."
Earlier, she said, "I've just been so impressed by the leaders of the Leadership Academy. Their passion and determination. They understand that a quality education should never come down to income or (skin) color."
Passion and determination have driven Swafford since her former work as the Howard School girls' basketball coach. When the Lady Tigers were run out of the gym by Kirkman during a game early one season, Swafford — then a first-year coach — used the Christmas break to teach and toughen her team. When Howard and Kirkman met again, the Lady Tigers won.
But as proud as she is of the remodeled gym, that's not what most pleases Swafford about CGLA.
"In three years we've gone from a 13.7 percent proficiency rating to reward school status," she said. "When we started, we had no grads with an acceptable ACT score. Now half of our juniors have made a 19 or above and six are in the 25-plus club."
Students have to submit to an interview. Only one thing is demanded of parents.
"Get your kids here on time," Swafford said. "No tardiness."
She likes the uniforms students are asked to wear — polo shirts and khakis — "because if someone has to wear the same outfit two days in a row, no one notices."
As for the girls-only approach —a boys-only school is set to open within two years — Swafford said, "It helps us concentrate on academics only rather than other things that might be on their minds."
CGLA basketball coach Justin Booker believes the refurbished gym has done much to help his seven-girl junior varsity team — the Mustangs won't achieve varsity status until next season — concentrate on hoops once school ends each day.
"The first practice in here, there was a different energy," he said. "They practiced harder. You could see how proud they were of this place."
And why not? Prior to the gym's completion, they often practiced on outdoor courts with rusty rims. They trained by running up and down the school's interior stairwells or around the grounds if the weather obliged.
"We started out at the bottom," sophomore Amiya Farris said.
Added fellow sophomore Adarria Mason, "It was no fun at all, but we had no choice."
Basketball aside, CGLA has Farris, Mason and so many other young women embracing big dreams and inspiring choices.
"I'm looking at going to Buffalo or UCLA and becoming an OBGYN," Farris said.
"I want to go to the University of Miami and study photography," Mason said.
But it is what Mason said about the process that Swafford began and Beck polishes that schools everywhere should study.
"When you think you've given it your best," she noted, "they let you know you can do better."
On Wednesday, Karen Hutton and a lot of other dedicated folks showed Farris, Mason and their schoolmates that more than a few good people in the Scenic City are determined to do better by CGLA every chance they get.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.
A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled veteran Hamilton County school administrator's name as 'Mario Beck.' It has been corrected to 'Maryo Beck.'