This story was updated March 29, 2018, at 11:24 p.m.
It's been almost a year since Chattanooga Preparatory School was approved to open its doors to 60 sixth-grade boys in the fall of 2018, and things are moving along.
More than 60 boys have been selected to join the new public charter school when it opens its doors, administrators and staff have been hired, even uniforms have been ordered.
"It happened pretty quickly, and then we moved forward," said Elaine Swafford, CEO of Chattanooga Prep and its sister school, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, of the school's approval by the Hamilton County school board last April. "I think everything is going along the timeline we had planned."
In 2016, Ted and Kelly Alling announced plans to open the all-boys charter school, which aims to provide low-income youth with the support needed to counteract the crippling effect poverty can have on education. The charter application, which must be approved by the local board of education, was submitted last February and approved in an 8-0 vote in late April.
The school, which will be located on a joint campus with CGLA in Highland Park, recruited students from neighborhoods in East Chattanooga, Alton Park and East Lake.
"We have an opportunity again to offer a great education to students," Swafford said. "As CEO of both schools, I look forward to bringing the schools together for collaboration and really moving both of these public charters forward in giving kids that advantaged education."
The first priority for Tim Gerrish, Chattanooga Prep's founding principal, has been to hire teachers for the first class of boys.
"The No. 1 predictor of student achievement is having a good teacher in the classroom," Gerrish said.
The school has hired a number of faculty, including Chatoris Jones as dean of faculty and students, but is still on the hunt for a sixth-grade science teacher and an exceptional education teacher — two of the hardest positions to fill.
Over the course of the next several years, the school will add staff each year as it adds students, eventually serving about 60 students each in grades 6-12.
Gerrish, a graduate of Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla., and a Teach for America alumnus, brings myriad experiences from his time teaching at a KIPP school, one of the largest national charter school networks, in Kansas City, Mo., and his time as an assistant principal at Chattanooga Charter School for Excellence.
The same day Gerrish was offered a legal job, he got an offer from Teach for America, a national teacher training corps that places new teachers in usually some an area's highest need schools.
"I had peace in my heart that TFA was what I needed to do," Gerrish said of the decision that eventually led him to the helm of Chattanooga Prep. "I want to be an adult in a school building who invests in the kids."
He is most excited for the opportunity school officials have to meet the boys where they are and give them the resources they need to succeed.
"We want to change the trajectories of their lives," Gerrish said. "We want to teach them that education can be the key to changing their lives."
Many of the boys likely to enroll in Chattanooga Prep are zoned for some of the lowest performing schools in the state based on academic achievement, and most kids struggle to escape the toxic cycle of poverty, data shows.
Chattanooga Prep is partnering with Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy and modeling some of its curriculum and practices after CGLA's own example. In the past couple of years, CGLA has posted large academic gains, and the state is studying the school as a model for its work turning around low-performing, high-poverty schools.
The boys, who will be called "Prepsters" instead of students — a tradition that Gerrish adopted from his time with KIPP schools — will be given high academic expectations. The school's curriculum is based on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and focused on leadership.
For 20 minutes every day, the boys will meet in a seminar-style town hall, where they will discuss leadership, character development and learn skills to help them be successful, Gerrish said.
Mentorship is also foundational to the school's mission. Dozens of men in the community have already signed on.
"Each Prepster has a male mentor that will be on their journey for the next seven years. A lot of our Prepsters do not have a positive male influence in their lives and we believe our mentor program will lead to some extraordinary results and relationships," Ted Alling said in a statement.
Mentorship is one of the foundations of CGLA's mission, as well, and Gerrish hopes the boys at Chattanooga Prep will experience some of the same positive results from such relationships.
"To have another male role model in their life we can never have too many role models, no matter who we are," Gerrish said. "It will set them up for the future. The men we choose are connected in the community and they will be teaching them what it means to be an adult man."
Securing mentors for the Prepsters is one of the steps in the process she is most proud of — Swafford has long preached the importance of mentorship, pointing out its significance, even on the national stage.
"As important as academics are, and of course that's what the school is all about, I think mentoring them and feeding the human spirits of our students, I think its going to be another game changer," Swafford said.
In the coming weeks, Chattanooga Prep will hold training sessions for mentors, as well as information sessions for the parents and families of current fifth-graders who have been accepted to the school. In May, all the boys will attend an orientation, where they will take assessments to determine if they are on grade-level. Students who are not will attend summer school, starting in June.
Earlier this year, Gerrish and his wife organized a fitness-themed fundraiser, "WODanooga," in partnership with the Downtown Family YMCA where participants worked out over the course of 24 hours, to raise money for uniforms. All Prepsters will receive a free uniform to start the school year, thanks to a fundraiser that netted more than $5,000. The two schools, both supported by staff in CGLA's current business development office, will also co-host CGLA's sixth annual Golf Classic on June 7.
Behind CGLA, two former Tennessee Temple University buildings on Union Avenue are also undergoing a transformation as preparation for the school's opening continues.
Construction is "coming along," Swafford said, and multiple phases are on track to be complete by August. One building will be converted into a shared space for both schools, including a cafeteria, auditorium, library and STEM work space, and the other building will house the boys' classrooms.
Earlier this year, the school received $600,000 from the state Department of Education from funds slotted to help new charter schools design, plan and start their schools.
For now, the tiny team of administrators are planning to meet their boys and preparing for the first days of school and the road ahead. Swafford said the school is lucky to be able to learn from CGLA's model and experience as both a new charter school and one that was turned around.
"We can avoid a lot of the landmines by remembering the lessons learned," she said.