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Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy students listen to alumni, who are now in college, share their experiences on December 19, 2018. Alumni hosted the event today marking the 10th anniversary of the Chattanooga Girl’s Leadership Academy and announcing a new alumni program.

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Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy

With 10 years under its belt, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy is working to connect current students with its alumnae and establish a local alumnae association.

"This is CGLA's 10th year. This is an important year, and after 10 years there are two things we want to talk about," said Elaine Swafford, executive director of the all-girls public charter school. "One is establish an alumnae association. It is time. We want to develop more pride in this school, and that's one way we are going to do that."

The school kicked off its efforts with an alumnae brunch Wednesday, connecting former students with the 68 current juniors and seniors and holding a panel about the challenges and realities of college life.

On winter break, many alumnae were home from universities across the state — Austin Peay State University, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, University of Memphis, University of Tennessee-Knoxville and local schools including the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Chattanooga State Community College.

"Everybody thinks college is the best time of your life, that you're going to be living the dream," said Aareon Reed, who is studying nursing at Austin Peay.

But things like procrastinating, not studying or showing up to class can make it challenging, she told current students who are starting to prepare for life after high school.

Vinceia Crittenden added that students should try to figure out early what career or industry they are interested in. She's a junior in college and just recently changed her major, which will add an extra semester to her time in school.

"If you go into a field, make sure you get your feet wet early in your career," she said.

The college students also encouraged CGLA students to get planners, seek out scholarships, do well on standardized tests — especially the ACT — and seek out ways to de-stress and balance demands.

About 90 percent of CGLA's graduates attend college, Swafford said. Across Hamilton County, only about 69.6 percent of high school graduates enroll in college after high school and significantly fewer earn a degree, according to 2018 data from the Tennessee Department of Education.

The benefits of higher education are something she and school leaders stress to students.

"At the end of the day, that piece of paper that I want you to get — whether it's a two-year degree, or a certification, or a four-year degree — it's so important," Swafford told the cafeteria full of young women.

The school hopes the launch of an alumnae association will help current students and alumnae alike.

"We've done everything we can to get them to college and now we want to see what we can do to help keep them there," said Catherine Clifford, development coordinator for the school.

The school hopes to be able to keep track of alumnae as well as how many actually complete their degrees, connect them with local resources and help them find renewable scholarships throughout their time in school.

"In 2009, we opened Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy to 75 young women who dreamed the seemingly impossible dream of changing the way their community viewed them; in 2019, we celebrate our 10th year of growing students beyond their expectations," said Sue Anne Wells, the school's founder, in a statement. "With the support of our alumnae, we look ahead in the next 10 years to build an even smarter school where young women will continue to flourish."

Most of all, Swafford said, alumnae can help inspire current students.

"For our girls to see all the hard work they've done and see these girls and where they are now, and where they're going," Swafford said. "That's important."

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

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