Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy director calls for community partners to close education gap

Brandon Bacon, Shelah Griggs, and Carol Johnson look up at a scrolling screen of tweets about United Way at the annual United Way of Greater Chattanooga Community Celebration on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dr. Elaine Swafford, executive director of Chattanooga Girls' Leadership Academy, was the keynote speaker.

Before Elaine Swafford became executive director of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy in mid-2012 and transformed the failing charter school, she attended a service for Lent with a friend where the priest asked the question: "Why are you here?"

Swafford, knowing the question was meant to be reflective on her purpose in life, began to think about the significance of Lent and how people give up what they liked, such as chocolate or soft drinks. She began to ask herself what she would be willing to give up to make an impact in the community.

"Be careful what you ask for," she told the audience at the United Way's annual celebration Tuesday afternoon.

Swafford, who was the keynote speaker for the event to celebrate the nonprofit agency's accomplishments in 2015, explained that a few months after the service, she got a call asking her to run the all-girls charter school that was on the brink of shuttering.

Three years later, CGLA is a local turn-around story that has been featured in the Times Free Press' Poverty Puzzle series, and Swafford is often asked to tell her story to groups across the city.

Her message for the audience Tuesday was the necessity of partnerships, and she encouraged various stakeholders and nonprofit groups to work together to create purposeful impact for all children to have an equal playing field for their education.

"We've seen the poverty reports in the newspaper, it's discouraging," Swafford told the crowd. "We're at a critical, critical juncture in our society. It's time to demand answers of ourselves for our children."

United Way CEO Lesley Scearce, who has been at the helm of the organization since last summer, told the packed crowd Swafford's attitude toward helping others should be mimicked by local leaders.

"She believed in me and brought me alongside to learn from her," Scearce said of Swafford, who was one of her mentors in her early 20s. "The secret? She never called it mentoring. I suspected, or she pretended, that I was as valuable to the equation as she was."

During the event, United Way officials announced it had raised a record high in contributions in 2015 at $12.9 million. In the agency's annual report, it stated $3.5 million went to education initiatives, such as one in which 18,145 children were given a free book every month; nearly $2.4 million went to stability initiatives through which thousands of people accessed health services; $1.3 million went to support initiatives for disasters and emergencies and $2.4 million went to community capacity.

Yet, the biggest advocate for partnerships was 12-year-old Kelis Moore, who has been in the Boys and Girls Club for more than two years. Moore, who was chosen during a talent show to become United Way's "spokeskid," told the crowd in a taped interview how much she loved the program.

"It's like a place where I can get away and have fun," she said.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at or 423-757-6659.