This year, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy is celebrating the school's 10-year anniversary. Founded in 2009, it was the first all-girls charter school in Tennessee and the first public charter in Chattanooga.
As school leaders look toward a future that includes launching a $5 million endowment campaign and opening a new elementary school, Executive Director Elaine Swafford reminds the community to stay focused on the most important part of the school — the girls.
Here, five of CGLA's students reflect on their experiences and the impact the school has had on their lives.
Born in Nigeria, Anyang Ayai moved to the United States when she was 7 years old.
"Coming here was a complete perspective shift. It's like a 360, going from Africa, where you don't have a lot of resources, to here where you have an infinitely different resource," she said.
This year, the junior was the recipient of the school's Shining Star award, which is given to students who exhibit leadership and inspire their peers.
She said relationships between the students and their teachers have been the most significant factor in her success.
"I like the academic environment here; I think it's a challenging place to be. The course load is hard but they teach you that you have everything you need to succeed," Ayai said.
"Having teachers who understood what I was going through, maybe they hadn't experienced it before but they knew how hard it was to get used to another system and they took me under their wing and really tried to help me out."
Carrigan Collins started at CGLA as an introverted, anxious sixth grader.
She came from a small private school where she said teachers were sometimes "cruel." Some days, she didn't even want to come to school.
"When I came here I didn't really have any high expectations," Collins said. "I was caught off guard by how outgoing the teachers were. At first it scared me, but it helped me grow and become more outgoing."
If her teachers hadn't helped her feel comfortable, Collins said she wouldn't have been able to accomplish her proudest achievement — becoming student government president for the eighth grade.
"Even when there are days that I don't want to go to school, this is a place that I don't mind going," she said. "It's a place I know that I feel safe and a place where I know there are people I can go to if there's a problem."
The year before Mya Humphrey started at CGLA, she was taken away from her mother and sent to live with her father.
She said she wasn't ready for a new school. She didn't want to be there. She wasn't happy.
But then she found Mustang Leadership Partners. The horses. And Sue Anne Wells, one of the school's founders and leader of the mustang rescue program.
"When I got to MLP, the horses just changed everything for me and so did Ms. Sue Anne."
Five years later, Humphrey said she strives to be like Wells.
"Ms. Sue Anne is just someone that I look up to. That I strive to be kind of like when I get older, because she helped me in ways that people probably really don't know. She would come, put me in an office and talk to me and ask how I was. At home, I didn't even get that, but when I went to MLP, I was so happy, so then I started to get happy when I came to school."
Avery Love wants to go to college and become a dermatologist, but she's already an entrepreneur.
Along with two other students — her "partners" — she already runs a business, making and selling beauty products.
"We make all-natural products that help you with your skin and they are affordable," she said.
She said she almost left the school after eighth grade. She would have attended Brainerd High School, but then she realized all the opportunities she might have lost out on.
"Then I saw all the different programs I would have to leave, like our mentorship program with TVA and Tennessee American Water. Leave all those connections and not being connected with the community as much [would] hurt."
"I feel like everything at CGLA is like that it's still developing and I can be here to help it," she added.
Yhara Mendoza, the child of Guatemalan immigrants, is this year's valedictorian. She plans on studying bio-medical engineering in college, but she didn't always know if college was attainable.
Her parents were not familiar with the American education system, so much of the weight of applying to college, applying for financial aid and seeking out opportunities fell on Mendoza's shoulders.
That's where CGLA came in.
Through the Mustang Leadership Partners program and participating in the Public Education Foundation's Passport Scholars, and other opportunities made available to her because of the school, Mendoza said she was able to see herself in college. She said the connection with her college counselor and teachers at CGLA have helped push her toward success.
"By doing all those opportunities and experiences, it has allowed me to see that I can succeed in college," she said. "It will just be a little more difficult."
"Here at CGLA, I can just walk into the college counselor's office whenever I want and ask her questions and ask her for help."
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.