Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy exploring possibility of opening a new charter school in Highland Park

The Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy was photographed on July 18, 2019.

A new charter school might be coming to Hamilton County.

The Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy and its founder are leading efforts to establish a public charter school in Highland Park to serve elementary-aged students near the campuses of CGLA and Chattanooga Preparatory School.

The school is hosting two informational meetings Tuesday to introduce the plans and gather feedback from community members regarding interest in such a school in Highland Park, said Elaine Swafford, executive director of CGLA.

Swafford has previously mentioned her desire to reach more students than the ones in grades 6-12 that CGLA is currently serving. The plan to open an elementary school was included in CGLA's strategic plan in 2014, and in May, as she reflected on CGLA's 10th anniversary, Swafford said she hoped to reach students earlier than CGLA currently reaches them.

"We want to make sure we stay on our mission with this school," Swafford told the Times Free Press then and emphasized again Monday. "Our mission is to serve students who may live in a neighborhood where they don't have access to an advantaged education."

She said that she and the school's founder, Sue Anne Wells - who also co-founded CGLA - are interested in a Montessori-style elementary school. Montessori schools typically have more individualized curricula, with learning occurring at a student's own pace as they complete self-directed activities.

"Montessori really allows for individual students to move at their own pace," Swafford said. "If the student has the ability to do higher-level work, they can, and it also meets students where they are at and takes them as far as they can possibly go."

Montessori method also focuses on building early foundations in reading, mathematics and writing - all things Swafford said students often struggle with later on.

photo Executive Director Elaine Swafford poses for a portrait in the hallway at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy on Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The nationally-recognized public charter school celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.


Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy is hosting two informational meetings on Tuesday, Dec. 3 to introduce plans about the establishment of an elementary charter school in Highland Park.The meetings are at 9 a.m. in the school’s Hutton Gymnasium at 1800 Vance Avenue and at 5 p.m. in the school’s cafeteria at 1802 Bailey Avenue.For more information, contact Catherine Clifford at 423-468-4105. The meetings are open to the public.

The school could serve as a feeder to CGLA and Chattanooga Preparatory School. It is not intended to be a single-sex school but rather serve both boys and girls. Swafford estimated in May that the new school could cost as much as $2 million to $3 million in addition to the capital needed to build an actual facility.

But the establishment of such a school is far from certain.

Charter schools must be approved by either local school boards or the state Department of Education, which typically only becomes involved if a local board doesn't approve a charter and the school appeals to the state.

CGLA has submitted a letter of intent to Hamilton County Schools, Swafford said, and must submit a complete application by Feb. 1, 2020. From there, the fate of the potential new school would be in the hands of the Hamilton County school board.

Charter schools are public schools, typically funded by the same local and state tax dollars that fund local public schools as well as private dollars raised by the schools themselves, but are operated independently by their own board.

The most recent school approved by the Hamilton County school board was Chattanooga Preparatory School, modeled after CGLA and originally founded in 2017 as a partner school for boys. The school opened its doors to its first class of boys in August 2018.

Founded in 2009, CGLA aims to serve predominantly students from low-income households in Highland Park and Chattanooga's surrounding urban neighborhoods. It was the first charter school approved in Hamilton County and is still the only school with an all-girl student body.

The school is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and has steadily increased student achievement since Swafford took over leadership of the school in 2012.

Previously, the school had been listed as a priority school by the state Department of Education because of poor student performance or growth but has been recognized both locally and nationally since 2014 as a model for student achievement and school turnaround.

Swafford isn't sure what the appetite looks like for such a new Montessori-style charter school in Hamilton County, which is why the school is holding information sessions and canvassing its neighborhood and community, she stressed.

As for whether or not the school board will ultimately approve the application, she didn't say for sure but she did point to CGLA's proven track record.

"We've proven that we are performing, and I think that for students to have this pre-K through fifth grade option for a public Montessori school, especially for kids who wouldn't otherwise have access to an advantaged education, that gives them another choice," she said.

Hamilton County is currently home to two charter schools in addition to CGLA and Chattanooga Preparatory School, including Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence's Upper and Lower schools for students in grades K-8, and the environmentally conscious, outdoor school Ivy Academy that serves students in grades 6-12.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.