A decade of impact: School leaders, students reflect on 10 years of transformation at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy

Destini Collier, left, Cuzziah Walker, center, and Talasha Jones work on an activity in their middle school science class 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.
Destini Collier, left, Cuzziah Walker, center, and Talasha Jones work on an activity in their middle school science class 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.

It was the week before Tennessee's statewide standardized testing period begins, and the girls at Chattanooga's original public charter school were preparing.

In Kate Warwick's sixth grade reading class, students were analyzing reading passages.

Sixth grader Aarhiya Bennett tilted her head low, her jaw clenched in concentration as she circled and underlined the main idea, hooks and other literary terms that students across Hamilton County - the majority of whom are below grade level in reading - might have difficulty grasping.

The bar is set high at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy. It has to be.

The black and brown girls who attend Tennessee's first all-girls charter school come from some of Chattanooga's poorest communities.

They often show up at CGLA well below grade level in reading and math, and as Executive Director Elaine Swafford said, the school is "expected to produce highly learned children."

"We don't have time to run at the same speed, or walk at the same speed, to catch up. We have to go from trot to run," Swafford said.

This is the school's standard - the precedent it set in the past decade as it moved from the brink of closure to being a nationally recognized model of student achievement.

This year, school leaders, students and community members are celebrating CGLA's 10th anniversary, and their eyes are on the future and expanding the school's reach.

That future includes college graduation for many of the girls, an endowment campaign for the school and a new elementary school for the younger siblings of the girls and their brothers at Chattanooga Preparatory School.

On the 'brink of closure'

In 2006, Sue Anne Wells, a local philanthropist and community volunteer, and Maxine Bailey, then-director of the nonprofit Girls Inc. Chattanooga, had a conversation. What if instead of supplementing girls education after school and during the summer, they had the girls full-time?

"We came together one day and were talking about what we really wanted to accomplish and we looked at each other and said, 'My God, what if we had them all day?" Bailey said.

They both had been secretly dreaming about starting a school, Wells said.

Bailey and Wells still laugh about that conversation. But Bailey said they didn't talk about it again for almost a month, as if the mere speaking of it was daunting enough.

Within three years, a charter was approved by the Hamilton County school board and the state of Tennessee and they launched a school with seed money from Wells. Seventy-five girls in sixth and ninth grade started classes there in 2009.

It's goal was to serve underserved, minority girls in Chattanooga's Highland Park neighborhood and surrounding communities. These inner-city neighborhoods have historically sent students to some of Chattanooga's worst schools, where students have struggled to show academic achievement and graduate.

Wells, founder of Mustang Leadership Partners - a nonprofit that rescued mustangs - wanted poor girls in Chattanooga to have the kinds of opportunities, connections and supports that local prep schools and public schools in higher-priced neighborhoods offered the children of the well-to-do.

But at first, CGLA didn't seem to offer a great alternative.

By 2012, the school was on the brink of closure. It was on the state's list of failing schools, the majority of students were failing state reading tests and Algebra 1 scores were dismal. Enrollment was threatening to drop as parents wondered if the CGLA was any better than the public schools their children were zoned for.

The same week of Mother's Day 2012, Swafford, who had been at Chattanooga State Community College since 2007, received a call. CGLA needed her.

The school's founder had been told by then-Superintendent Rick Smith that the school needed to improve student academic achievement or close within a year.

Swafford believes that may be the reason why the school's turnaround has been such a success.

"We were given an ultimatum and we met that ultimatum," she said. "We had no choice."

Swafford went about restructuring the school. Teachers reapplied for their jobs, schedules were changed and the girls were taught "what good teaching really looks like."

Girls began receiving extra blocks of reading intervention and math, what Swafford calls "enrichment."

During Swafford's first year, the school year was extended, so students started a week before Hamilton County's public school students and many attended - and still attend - summer programs and after-school tutoring.

Within a year, the 201 students who attended the school during the 2012-2013 academic year were showing academic progress.

By 2014, test results showed that students increased their math proficiency by 36%, their science proficiency by 30%, their Algebra II proficiency by 64% and their biology proficiency by 56%.

Enrollment jumped to 300 students that same year, and less than two academic years after Swafford took over leadership of the school it was named a Reward School, one of the top schools in the state.

'The data speaks for itself'

CGLA teachers and Swafford say they don't teach to the test, but student achievement data matters.

While giving a tour of the school recently, she led Times Free Press reporters into the teacher workroom behind the front office. Two walls are covered in posters and printouts of years worth of achievement data: TNReady test scores, graduation and attendance rates, ACT scores and every current student's individual semester grades and benchmark scores broken down by subject for this school year.

"For both teachers and students, that's how we're going to go about it," Swafford explained. "We're going to hold everyone accountable for children and we're gonna make sure we have more emphasis on learning that on teaching with the teacher as the facilitator and the student as the agent."

In classes, where sometimes teachers are aided by Gear Up teaching assistants, student teachers from local teacher preparation programs and the school's coaches, girls work in small groups, they work individually, they work on their laptops.

We really do set the bar high for them here," Warwick said. "We know where they are when they come in below, so we meet them there, but we immediately start to move the bar higher.

Classes at CGLA are quiet and orderly. Girls have autonomy, such as the assigned student ambassadors, who quietly get up to greet visitors who pop their heads in, but they also make personal connections in these smaller settings.

Anyang Ayai, a junior at CGLA, is this year's recipient of the school's prestigious Shining Star Award, which recognizes academic achievement and leadership among their peers.

She said when she first began at CGLA in sixth grade, it was because her parents wanted her in an all-girls environment. But now, she is glad she attends the school.

"I like the academic environment. It's a very challenging place to be, and while the course load is hard, they teach you that you have everything you need to succeed," Ayai said.

And the work that Swafford and her team has done and are doing, seems to be paying off.

In 2018, the school was named in the top 25 high schools in the state for highest composite ACT scores.

Its graduation rate is typically above Hamilton County Schools and its attendance rate hovers between 94% and 96% - compared to 85%, the district's average attendance rate. Some of the schools that serve the same communities as CGLA have even lower daily attendance dates.

Most importantly, every year since Swafford took over, her students have show academic growth or proficiency.

Building a legacy

Next spring, in May 2020, Swafford's first class will graduate from college. Many of those students are already connected with the school through the newly launched alumnae association. Last December, former students met with current juniors and seniors to talk about graduating, college and success.

Girls are used to these interactions. The school's robust one-to-one mentoring program remains a success. Every girl is matched with a mentor. whether inside the school building or from the community at large. They regularly partner with communtiy organizations such as the local all-girls private school Girls Preparatory School, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and the Lula Lake Land Trust.

Nearly 100 girls have taken part in Wells' Mustang Leadership Program, which connects girls with rescued, wild mustangs and exposes them to the world of horseback riding and equestrian events.

This fall, the girls also began to catch glimpses of boys on campus. Though the students from the all-boys Chattanooga Preparatory School don't share classes or engage with the girls during the school day, the schools are intimate partners.

Swafford helped founders Tim and Kelly Alling secure the school's charter in 2017 and served as executive director until she stepped down in December.

Chattanooga Prep has modeled its launch - one new grade a year - after CGLA, and Swafford says she and the new Head of Lower School Brad Scott will continue to work together.

One of the legacies of a public charter school, Wells and Swafford agree, is sharing successes and ensuring the success of other public charter schools.

Bailey, the school's other founder who now lives in Chicago, dreams of helping launch other schools across the country.

"Think about the possibilities of replicating this model for girls across the country," she said.

Looking toward the future

Earlier this month, 27 girls walked across the stage in CGLA's Hutton Gymnasium. Among them were three students who are receiving full scholarships to University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Every girl will be attending college or a post-secondary program.

"We are supposed to inspire children to become what they want to become and change the trajectory of their lives," Swafford said.

In the next two years, she and Wells hope to raise $5 million through the school's endowment campaign and launch a foundation to fund college scholarships for the girls.

"That too is our future," Swafford said. "It will help us sustain and build upon the things we have built."

This summer, Swafford and her team will begin visiting public Montessori schools around the country as they envision ideas for an elementary school they hope to open by August 2021.

The new school will require the Hamilton County school board and the state to approve a change or addition to CGLA's charter, which Swafford said will probably go before the board sometime next spring.

In its start-up year, a new school could cost as much as $2 million to $3 million in addition to the capital needed to build an actual facility.

Swafford said she hopes to reach kids even earlier than CGLA does now, but the pre-K and elementary school won't stray from Wells' and CGLA's original mission.

"We want to make sure we stay on our mission with this school," Swafford said. "That is again to serve the underserved. That is again not intended to be a mix of private/public funds. It will be a public school to serve those we already serve, who will be the younger siblings of kids in the boys and girls school."

By the time they complete fifth grade, the students and their families can decide if they want to continue on to a same-sex middle and high school or matriculate into another Hamilton County school.

Swafford said it is less important where they decide to go, than if they are prepared.

"The only thing we care about is that they walk out of that door for sixth grade on reading level, on math level. That's what we want," she said.

Within the next year, girls will begin to benefit from one of the school and Highland Park's biggest partnerships yet - a $5 million sports and fitness park funded by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation's Healthy Places initiative.

"When I think back 10 years, what Dr. [Sue Anne] Wells started here and the people who have put the time and energy to provide the facilities that are here, it's an honor to be a part of supporting facilities for you to have here," said Scott Wilson, director of community relations and health foundation for BlueCross.

When the park was announced last week, Swafford said the new facility and the partnership supporting it is a perfect example to show how far the school has come in 10 years.

"From the brink of closure to a 22,000-square-foot facility that we were growing out of, to a hub for the students and the community. Dr. Wells always said she wanted the school to be a hub for many activities in the community and we've strived for that." Swafford said. "Out of an acorn is about to grow a big oak tree."

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

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