Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 2/20/17. Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy Principal Maryo Beck.

Girls Leadership Academy

Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy’s 2017 governance board:

Executive Committee:

Sue Anne Wells, chairwoman

Meredith Perry, vice-chairwoman

Pat Farnsley, treasurer

Edna Varner, secretary

Grant Law

Rickie Pierce

Virginia Anne Sharber

Additional Members:

Hazel Bell

Lulu Copeland

Gordon Davenport

Tony Doyley

Cheryl Godwin

Annie Hall

GeGe Harris

Martina Harris

Dallas Joseph

Elizabeth Jessen

Donna Killian

Stacy Lightfoot

Kristina Montague

Mary Grey Moses

Margaret Nelson

Erskine Oglesby

Charley Spencer

The skyrocketing success of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy was celebrated Wednesday during the charter school's eighth annual Odyssey Awards Luncheon and fundraiser.

"CGLA is a place where every student is challenged with relentless rigor and relentless pursuits of educational excellence," said Kelly Alling, who was co-chairperson of the event with her husband, Ted Alling, and longtime school supporter Jo Ann Yates.

Sue Anne Wells launched CGLA in 2009, wanting to provide disadvantaged girls an advantaged education.

The school's first couple of years were tumultuous, Wells said, and it was nearly closed by the state due to its low academic performance.

"Our mission was figuring out how to reach these very smart, teachable young women," Wells said. "It was our fault, our fault they were below basic, not theirs."

Elaine Swafford has served as the school's executive director for the past five years, and during that time the school has posted large academic gains, and the average ACT score at the school has jumped from a 13.7 to 18.1.

Now that the school is successfully improving academic outcomes, Swafford told the crowd gathered at the luncheon, she is now focusing on a "parent replacement" campaign.

The initiative isn't meant to be negative, Swafford said, but is a way the school is helping fill in the gaps that parents living in poverty can't.

The school provides students with a wide range of support services including mentoring and workplace internships, the chance to retake the ACT several times, and the opportunity to participate in robotics and entrepreneurial competitions.

"We are creating education outside the classroom," Swafford said. " We are working hard every day, and success means to inspire hope in every girl."

During the luncheon, senior Diamond Jones was honored for receiving a $20,000 college scholarship from Girls Inc.

The annual Rising Star and Shining Star awards were given to two students who exhibit leadership among their peers and aspire toward careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Christina Fischborn, a middle school student, won the Rising Star Award, and spoke with poise and maturity as she thanked her teachers, lacrosse coach, peers and grandparents for encouraging and pushing her to excellence.

"Everyone at CGLA has helped me in some way, they have helped me see what I wish to become. I plan to become an orthopedic surgeon," she said.

Junior Ka'Darrell Howell, who has been at the academy since she was 12, received the Shining Star Award. Howell thanked the school for providing her with a rigorous education, and received loud applause when she announced that she scored a 28 on the ACT.

Howell said she plans to earn a degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA from Vanderbilt University after graduating from CGLA.

"I know that being an African-American woman in engineering will be challenging, but my school has shown me I can do anything I put my mind to," she said.

The inaugural Founders Leadership Award was given to Karen Hutton. Hutton is the CEO of the construction company Hutton, which has donated both resources and people to support the work at the school.

She told the girls attending CGLA to feel fortunate for the education they are receiving.

"It's not like this everywhere else," Hutton said.

Wintley Phipps, a globally recognized vocalist, motivational speaker and education activist, gave the luncheon's keynote address.

"This is really a celebration of people who believe and invest in the lives of others," Phipps said. "People who understand that the greatest investment you could ever make is in the life of a young lady who has the power to change the world."

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