Luncheon celebrates 10 years of transformation at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy

CGLA CEO Dr. Elaine Swafford presents the Rising Star Award to Kelly Perez Hernandez at the 10th Annual Odyssey Awards Luncheon Wednesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
CGLA CEO Dr. Elaine Swafford presents the Rising Star Award to Kelly Perez Hernandez at the 10th Annual Odyssey Awards Luncheon Wednesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Ten years ago, schoolhouse doors in Chattanooga opened at Tennessee's first single-gender public charter school.

Seven years ago, a new chief executive officer, Elaine Swafford, took over that same school after it was identified by the state for low student performance and threatened to be shut down.

Wednesday, hundreds of community members came together to celebrate the school's turnaround, its ongoing success and some of its biggest supporters.

Chattanoooga Girls Leadership Academy Governance Board for 2019

Executive Committee:Sue Anne Wells, chairMeredith Perry, vice-chairGrant Law, treasurerEdna Varner, secretaryAdditional Members:Lisa BrockCary Olson CartwrightJaniece ColeLulu CopelandGordon DavenportChris EvansPat FarnselyTom GlennCheryl GodwinDr. Martina HarrisMandy HickeyLarissa HuskeyKaren HuttonElizabeth JessenStacy LightfootMary Grey MosesMargaret NelsonErskine OglesbyRickie PierceVirgina Anne SharberLynette SmithCharley SpencerJo Ann Yates

Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy celebrated its 10th anniversary at its annual Odyssey luncheon, by recognizing its founders, its leaders and some of the very girls who have benefited from the school's success.

"Right now it seems completely inevitable that CGLA would be the amazing school that it is today," said Nicole Brown, academic adviser at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and emcee of the event.

Maxine Bailey, one of the school's co-founders, said the school's success was thanks to extraordinary women who have supported the school since the journey first began.

"They told us we couldn't do it, so we did," Bailey said of the long journey to open CGLA's doors 10 years ago.

The theme of strong women working together to help others succeed is a thread that binds the CGLA community together.

"The most significant thing I've learned is that there's always someone there who will help you and is willing to pull you up," said Kelly Perez Hernandez, an eighth-grader who received the annual Rising Star award that recognizes an outstanding middle school student at the school for grades six through 12. "It's about having the courage to say, 'I need help, will you help me?'"

Along with Kelly, 11th-grader Anyang Ayai also was honored as the high school's Shining Star.

"The CGLA curriculum has challenged me to question, to reason, to push the boundaries of what is possible," Ayai said. "It has given me the chance to pursue passions."

The school, which is centered around a STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - curriculum, emphasizes preparing girls who are mostly minorities and from communities of concentrated poverty, for college and for careers in male-dominated STEM fields. It also provides extracurricular mentoring programs and leadership opportunities like the Mustang Leadership Partners, which was featured in a documentary that premiered at the 2018 Lookout Wild Film Festival.

Swafford emphasized that the school does not only prepare students for standardized tests and success in the classroom, but for college and future success.

Since she took over leadership of the school, CGLA girls have become some of the highest scorers in the state on the ACT, CGLA alumni have gone on to a variety of both in-state and out-of-state schools and the school has been recognized nationally for its success.

"Without ambition, one starts nothing," Swafford said. "Without work, one finishes nothing."

School leaders and governance board member Edna Varner of the Public Education Foundation also honored philanthropist Jo Ann Yates with the Founders Leadership Award, honoring a person, organization or foundation that has supported the school's mission.

"She is an advocate. She is a woman who is deeply passionate about everything, everything education and opportunity for all in our community. A woman dedicated to improving the lives of the young women served by CGLA," Varner said.

At the end of the program, which also featured a keynote address from Mpumi Nobiva, a South African international speaker and a performance by Grammy-winning Wintley Phipps alongside the CGLA choir, Kelly said the luncheon was a powerful experience.

"This is the most defining moment," she said. "We have so many people who have helped us with so many things. The way they run the school has helped me realize that I should take advantage of every opportunity I've been given."

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

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