Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy recognized for improved test scores

photo Student Brishanna Smith works on a Chromebook in class Tuesday at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy in Chattanooga. CGLA, Tennessee's first single-gender STEM public charter school, has in two years turned from the threat of closure to a top-achieving school.
photo Executive director Dr. Elaine Swafford talks Tuesday about the system of benchmarking and achievement tracking in the data room and teachers' lounge of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.

The Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy was on the verge of being shut down in 2012 when Elaine Swafford took over as executive director.

Now, test scores have improved so much at the all-girl charter school that it was recognized this year and last by the state as a "Reward School," meaning it's among the top 5 percent of schools that improved their scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program standardized test.

The school's secret?

"It's really not a silver bullet," Swafford said. "It's just work."

Part of that work involves closely tracking students' progress at the school, which focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"This is my data room," Swafford said Tuesday, as she showed charts that track test scores. They hang on the walls of the teachers' lounge at the school, which is inside a former Temple University building on Bailey Avenue in Chattanooga's Highland Park neighborhood.

A whiteboard has one strip of paper for each of the school's 296 students. Each strip of paper has spaces for color-coded dots that show how the student does on the state test. A blue dot means advanced, green is proficient, yellow is basic and red means below basic.

"We'll talk about every kid and where they are," Swafford said.

Adjustments are made accordingly.

For example, lower-performing students may be grouped together, if that will help.

"I'll change a [student's] schedule on a dime," Swafford said.

The school's close monitoring of test scores showed that reading needed improvement. So a daily morning reading period was created. Material ranges from free copies of newspapers to the "Twilight" series of teen vampire romances.

"Reading should be fun," Swafford said. "If the parents and the kids are OK with [a book], I'm OK with it."

Each of the school's students gets a Chromebook, an affordable laptop computer that uses Google's app-based operating system.

"They get to take them home," school spokeswoman D'Wauna Young said. Previously, laptops had to stay at school.

The Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy also posts the names of students who score well on the state assessment test. The display is in the front lobby near the "Dojo Store," a room stocked with snacks and other rewards for students who earn points for good behavior. This week, points are awarded for meeting the dress code, staying on task and showing teamwork.

Goal of 350 students next year

The Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy was launched in 2009 with 75 girls who attended class at the former James A. Henry School on Grove Street in the city's Westside neighborhood, where public housing is concentrated. The school was the idea of community advocates Sue Anne Wells and Maxine Bailey, who came up with the concept over a cup of coffee. Wells is also a founder of Mustang Leadership Partners, a private horse ranch on the Tennessee River that protects wild horses.

Wells hired Swafford, who coached a girls basketball team to a playoff at the Howard School in 1983-84 and returned in 2004 to be principal there and help Howard turn around its test scores.

"This is my second go-round," Swafford said.

One of the first things Swafford did when she took over was make the faculty reapply for their jobs. Only half of them were retained.

She credits the current team of faculty and staff for turning the school around.

"Is it replicable? Absolutely," Swafford said.

The Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy's enrollment has increased to 296 sixth- through 12th-grade girls. They're 65 percent black, 29 percent Latina, 5 percent white and 1 percent Asian, a school brochure says.

There's no lottery now to get into CGLA, but that may change, said Swafford, whose goal is to increase the charter school's enrollment to 350 students in the next school year.

Improvements at the academy help boost overall test scores for the Hamilton County Department of Education, since charter schools' scores are lumped in with public school scores.

"We're very encouraged at the progress at CGLA," said Robert Sharpe, Hamilton County's assistant superintendent for education and leadership. "Dr. Swafford and her leadership has really made a difference over there."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at or or or 423-757-6651.

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