Local couple hopes to open all-boys charter school to serve Chattanooga's poorest

Ted and Kelly Alling, co-founders of Chattanooga Prep, talk about moving in to the former Tennessee Temple buildings of Cierpke Library and Faulkner Hall to open the new boys school.
photo Ted and Kelly Alling, co-founders of Chattanooga Prep, talk about moving in to the former Tennessee Temple buildings of Cierpke Library and Faulkner Hall to open the new boys school.

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A community meeting for parents interested in sending their kids to Chattanooga Prep is scheduled for Thursday at 5:30 p.m. The meeting will be held in the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy’s lecture hall, and refreshments will be provided. CGLA is located at 1802 Bailey Ave.

Chattanooga Prep’s board of directors

Ted and Kelly AllingMontrell BesleyKrue BrockDavid CainesSteve CoxWard DavenportNatalie JacksonSean KaneJoe MartinMeredith PerryDavid RiceElaine SwaffordSue Wells

Some of the city's poorest boys could receive an advantaged education if a new charter school gets approval to open in 2018.

The new all-boys school, Chattanooga Prep, would be located in Highland Park and is the brainchild of Ted and Kelly Alling, who have been investing in inner-city Chattanooga for 15 years. The pair, in their late 30s, want this school to provide boys with the support and tools needed to counteract the crippling effect poverty can have on education.

Chattanooga Prep comes at a time when much public attention is being placed on the lack of equity in Hamilton County Schools. The high schools serving a majority of the districts' poor and minority students are failing to prepare graduates for college or career, and most kids struggle to escape the toxic cycle of poverty, data shows.

"The families and young men of Chattanooga deserve greater opportunity and choice," said Ted Alling, a founder of Access America Transport and managing director at Dynamo, a logistics accelerator. "The gifts and talent of these students have been underserved due to poverty and educational inequity."

The Allings moved to Chattanooga in 2002, and Kelly began working as a resource manager for Habitat for Humanity. They say this work exposed them to the obstacles many Chattanooga families living in poverty face.

After selling Access America in 2014, the Allings and their three kids moved to London for a yearlong sabbatical. While there, they spent time contemplating how they could make a major impact on Chattanooga when they returned. They decided to open Chattanooga Prep after visiting Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, realizing the opportunity they could provide boys and their families through a public charter school.

Elaine Swafford, executive director at CGLA, is serving as an adviser to Chattanooga Prep.

For years, parents have been asking Swafford to open a boys school, seeing the recent success CGLA has had preparing girls for college. Chattanooga Prep is the opportunity these parents, many who are living in poverty, have been waiting for, Swafford said.

Chattanooga Prep plans to open with 60 sixth-graders; a grade will be added each year. The boys will be given high academic expectations and the support they need to reach them. The school's curriculum will be based on STEM - science, technology, engineering and math - and focused on leadership. Mentorship of the boys is also foundational to the school's mission.

Chattanooga Prep will partner with CGLA, and the Allings have already purchased two former Tennessee Temple University buildings on Union Avenue, next to the girls' school.

The buildings will be remodeled soon. One will be converted into a shared space for both schools, including a cafeteria, auditorium, library and area for the arts, and some extracurricular classes will combine the boys and girls. The other building will house 31 state-of-the-art classrooms for the boys' school.

An abandoned field on Bennett Avenue that was going to be a new housing development was also purchased by the Allings and others, who plan to build an athletic stadium for the schools.

In coming weeks, Kelly Alling said she and her husband and others will continue engaging the community, knocking on doors in the East Chattanooga area and Alton Park, and listening to parents' concerns.

"I will be asking: 'What do your kids need?'" Kelly Alling said.

Families in these underserved neighborhoods will be invited to apply to the school.

Lashanda Crowder, a mom of two boys in Hamilton County public schools, said she was ecstatic when the Allings told her about Chattanooga Prep.

"This is a school that will focus on the boys and their needs," she said. "This will help them grow into what they need to be."

One of Crowder's sons is too old to attend the school and she's working hard to find scholarship opportunities for him to attend a local private school, knowing the importance of a quality education on his future.

She said Chattanooga Prep is the answer she and other parents have been waiting for, and she hopes to enroll her younger son.

"This will provide a good education to families who don't think they can afford it for their kids," she said. "[A good education] is what all the kids deserve. When you make the expectations higher the kids perform higher."

Standing outside the school Thursday morning, the Allings pointed to where they plan to house a clinic and food pantry for students - a lack of nutrition and medical care is a rampant problem among poor children. Research shows both of these factors impact students' academic performance and school attendance, and the Allings want to remove this barrier.

"We want to take care of the whole person," Kelly Alling said.

Swafford has been at the helm of CGLA for four years and has tackled her job with urgency. She is starting to move the dial for girls who are arriving at the school several grade levels behind their peers. Nearly all of the students attending CGLA live in poverty, and 90 percent of last year's graduating class went to college.

"It's about taking kids where you find them and pushing them as far as you can in the time allotted," Swafford said in the school's conference room last week. "The fact that kids come in behind should not deter you from growing them in nine months."

Chattanooga Prep plans to file for its charter with the Hamilton County Board of Education in January. Three charter schools already are operating in Hamilton County: CGLA, Ivy Academy and Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence.

The group is already creating pipelines with progressive education groups like Teach for America, Kipp Schools and Relay Graduate School with the intent to fill the school with top educators.

It takes highly effective teachers and a strong leader to help students who are grade levels behind make significant academic gains, Swafford said.

"We have to believe and convince the children from day one that they can learn," she added. "It's about giving disadvantaged kids an advantaged education."

The idea and seed money to start CGLA came from Sue Anne Wells, a private philanthropist and alumna of Girls Preparatory School. Swafford said kids would not have the opportunity to receive this quality education without Wells' and the Allings' vision and generosity.

"Their hearts are in it," Swafford said. "They are doing it for the kids."

Plans are underway to launch a multi-million dollar capital campaign in 2017 that will endow Chattanooga Prep for 10 years.

Derelle Roshell graduated from The Howard School in 2014 and has been mentored by Ted Alling for years. He said many boys in Hamilton County don't have the opportunity to receive the type of education Chattanooga Prep will offer.

"It's just all over a great idea," said Roshell, now a student at Tennessee State University.

Chattanooga needs people like the Allings, who understand how the two sides of the city live - both the rich and the poor - and are willing to get involved and help, Roshell said.

With the increase in violence and gang influence, Chattanooga Prep is what the city needs, said Montrell Besley, a longtime youth worker and mentor who ran unsuccessfully for the District 4 school board seat in August.

"We need to put great males around our younger generation to show them there is something better for them," Besley said.

The mentorship and community support the school will provide is going to be a game-changer for students, he added, and the strong academics will also be essential to helping the boys thrive in college and life.

Greg Dixon has been coaching youth sports in Alton Park for many years and said boys across the city need male role models and people to invest in their futures. Chattanooga Prep could not be more needed in the community, he added.

"It's going to teach the kids how to be men," Dixon said.

Chattanooga Prep's mascot will be the Sentinels, a symbol seen throughout history and in stories as being both guardians of the community and champions of character, Ted Alling said.

"It's about defending your community, your country, your family and your brothers," he said. "That's what our Sentinels will be about."

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or krainwater@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.