A sign lists August 3 as the first day of school outside Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy on Friday, Aug. 4, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. CGLA begins classes a week earlier than the rest of Hamilton County to give students access to educational opportunities like college visits.

A week before classes start at other Hamilton County public schools, students attending Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy were already back in the classroom preparing for the year ahead.

The school opened its doors Thursday, allowing students to readjust to the rhythm of school while sparking excitement and establishing high expectations.

"We are pulling out everything we can to make a difference in the lives of students," said Elaine Swafford, CGLA's executive director.

Students started their first Friday morning back at school reading before rotating among classes, growing accustomed to their schedules and getting to know their teachers.

By Tuesday, teachers are expected to know the names of all their students — Swafford emphasizes the role relationships play in nurturing academic success.

CGLA is a public charter school serving grades six-12, and it is starting to move the dial for girls who arrive at the school several grade levels behind.

It has earned top marks for academic growth for the last four years. Nearly all the students attending CGLA live in poverty, but Swafford said that can't be used as an excuse for low performance and low expectations.

The school instead works to provide every student with the support they need to be successful.

On Monday, CGLA is taking every student to visit nearby colleges.

"We want to plant the seed that you're getting a college preparatory education here," Swafford said. "We take them to colleges to say, 'This is your end goal.'"

Also during CGLA's first week of transitional programming, students attended a ceremony celebrating rising seniors who scored 25 or higher on the ACT, were introduced to different clubs and sports the school offers, participated in team-building activities and took a learning style assessment.

Keely Dixson, a seventh-grader at CGLA, was excited to return to school, she said Friday. This school year she hopes to join the cheerleading team and wants to be a part of the Mustang Leadership Program, but she's also a little worried about math being difficult.

"I just want to learn more," she said.

Her classmate, Ashlee Lopez, said she's determined to make good grades this year and liked that the first week of school was more relaxed, giving her an idea of what's expected in coming months.

The burgers Swafford grilled for students during the back-to-school cookout on the first day were also pretty good, Ashlee said with a large smile.

Just down the hall in another classroom, students rotated among stations where they did different activities with their science teacher. At one station, girls filled in a coloring sheet about themselves, while others nearby were using specific science terms to fill in the blanks of a worksheet.

Swafford said those kinds of activities give students a jump-start on the academic standards they're expected to meet when regular classes begin Thursday.

"We're going to already be out the gate," she said.

Looking to the semester ahead, CGLA officials don't plan to waste a single day of learning and will remain open on Aug. 21, despite Hamilton County and several neighboring districts shutting their doors for the solar eclipse.

But a field trip is planned for students that day. They'll board buses in the morning and visit Tennessee Wesleyan University before heading to TVA's Watts Bar to watch the eclipse.

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