Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy Has Grown To 350 Students In 10 Years; Dr. Elaine Swafford Led Turnaround

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy has grown to 350 students in its first decade, co-founder Sue Ann Wells said.

She said it was initially a "failing school," but Dr. Elaine Swafford led its turnaround.

Ms. Wells said:

Greetings CGLA friends and supporters:

I am writing to update you on the progress and growth of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.

The school is prospering beyond our expectations. As I reflect on our beginnings, I remember how naïve we were in our assumptions that the opening of a public charter school in Chattanooga would meet very few impasses and difficulties. Our assumptions were definitely naïve, but we have successfully met head-on challenges and continue to march forward with great strides.

Our journey began in 2007 when a small group of educators and school reform initiators dreamed of a school that would revitalize our local public education. This “task force” devised a resourceful plan that would include all young women but especially those who faced academic and social/emotional challenges in the more traditional public school. The first part of our legwork was to visit inner-city, urban neighborhoods where we talked with families about the idea of opening a public charter all-girls STEM school. “Would you send your daughters to a single gender charter school?” we asked. The reply was a unanimous YES; so, for the next 18 months, the small group frequently met to discuss how to design a school that would address the specific needs of urban girls. We partnered with Hamilton County Department of Education, the downtown business sector, and local colleges and universities. Their advice was instrumental in helping us think about how to best create a school that would enrich and cultivate the landscape of public education in our community.   

Two years later, in 2009, we opened Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, the first single-gender STEM public charter school in the state. The inspiration for CGLA was based on the fact that far too few African American and Latina young women are pursuing degrees and careers in STEM. Because of this proven data, we decided to focus on a STEM-based curriculum and because STEM education encourages critical thinking through questioning, processing, and then finding solutions.

This year, 2019, we celebrate our 10th year of educating and serving young women. We have grown from the small school on Grove Street with 75 students to the middle/high school in Highland Park with 350 girls.

It seems like only a few years ago when we began the Hamilton County Department of Education’s required application process for the opening of the school; it was unanimously approved by their Board of Directors. The first few years were full of challenges and roadblocks. CGLA was placed on the State’s priority list for failing schools two years running. We faced closure because of the very low state test scores. Due to this grim but real forecast, the governance board thoughtfully and strategically hired the renowned and experienced reform specialist Dr. Elaine Swafford to “turnaround” our school. Dr. Swafford, her leadership team, and the visionary governance board questioned and carefully researched the “how” of educating young women. Their findings led to creating a very rigorous detailed plan for a STEM-focused curriculum like we envisioned when we opened our doors in 2009. This curriculum has paid off; the CGLA student now successfully graduates from high school to attend college where she is welcomed into the world of STEM.

Because we know that every CGLA student will have an opportunity to go to college and have a career of her choice, we make sure that she has a strong support system along with a mentor. Statistics show that youth who have mentors will most likely stay in school, enroll in college, and have leadership positions. We have seen proof of these statistics; every student at CGLA has a mentor who pushes her to excel in all aspects of her life including her academic pursuits.

Today, we look ahead to build an even smarter school where young women will continue to flourish. Indeed, we continue to grow beyond our expectations and to follow our vision of inspiring hope in each girl, changing her trajectory in life, and empowering her to possess infinite choices in the future. This vision molds our everyday living and thinking.

On May 10th, our 7th graduating class walked across the stage as smart leaders, ambassadors for a STEM education, and prepared for the challenges of college. As the great NBA basketball player Bill Russell says, “there’s no such thing as other people’s children”; all students, all children, are our responsibility. I own up to this responsibility, and I challenge this community to own up to Bill Russell’s belief that we are responsible for taking care of ALL children.

Finally, I am grateful for your support, for your belief in the CGLA student and the CGLA vision. You give us confidence to do our job of educating young women and to do it well. You inspire the CGLA team and governance board to build healthy minds so that we can create a better world. 

‘Til next time,

Sue Anne Wells, PhD

Co-Founder, CGLA

Chair, CGLA Governance Board


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