When Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy Director Dr. Elaine Swafford walks through the school, she commands respect, but she also attracts affection.
During a recent tour of the Bailey Avenue school, Swafford walked through the halls, passing a classroom that a student came out of. The girl called Swafford "mama" before hugging the school's leader.
"I’m some of their mothers, some of their grandmothers," Swafford said.
The school has come a long way, both in terms of academic achievement and in peacefulness, Swafford said.
Swafford came to the school—which has been open since 2009—in 2012.
"I'm really tough on kids," she said. "We came in and settled down the place. It's a much different place than when we walked in."
—CGLA is serving 296 girls for the 2014–15 school year.
—Leaders want to reach 350 students by 2015–16.
—The school's population is 65 percent black, 29 percent Latina, 5 percent Caucasian and 1 percent Asian.
—Ninety-seven percent of the school's students are low-income.
—Nearly 100 percent of the students live in Chattanooga's urban core.
—There are 25 classroom teachers and three other officials, such as a guidance counselor.
Source: CGLA officials, documents
Other school leaders, such as Bess Steverson, director of advancement and fund development, said that Swafford's leadership has helped the school's success.
Swafford—who has a doctorate in educational leadership and has served as a principal, a superintendent and a leader at Chattanooga State Community College—sets the bar high for both students and teachers, Steverson said.
When Swafford came in for the 2012–13 school year, she and her team created a comprehensive instructional and intervention plan to move students to proficient and advanced academic levels.
In 2012, only about 6 percent of students there were proficient in Algebra 1, but about 70 percent of students are meeting the standards now.
"We’ve had exponential improvement," Swafford said. "We put our priority status in our rearview mirror."
Priority status is a designation that means a school is among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state in terms of academic achievement.
CGLA focuses on STEM education but also the arts, so they use the acronym STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics.
CGLA educators have worked to build students' confidence. Part of the process is about convincing the young women that they are smart and capable, Swafford said.
The teachers also put an emphasis on writing, especially with a schoolwide assessment coming up. Teachers in every subject incorporate literary and writing components into coursework.
And the students are always building up other strengths such as communication, money management and presentation skills.
When a visitor comes into a classroom at CGLA, a student usually walks up to them, introduces themselves and explains what they are working on.
Swafford said the students aren't scripted, but they are taught to approach people, which helps them practice social and presentation skills.
Swafford said CGLA is the only school in Hamilton County that has a "youth bank" that helps students save money.
Juniors and seniors act as the tellers of the bank, and students can deposit money once a week.
A school administrator oversees the process and takes the money to deposit at Suntrust, which matches some of the funds to help students increase their accounts.
"They are building up a savings account, and they can turn it to a regular checking account when they graduate, should they want to," Swafford said.
The school receives $7,400 per student from the state, but it costs about $11,000 per year per student to educate them.
Leaders are planning for their biggest annual fundraiser, a luncheon that's scheduled for Feb. 9.
Click here to watch a video that provides more insight into what funds support at the school.
There is also an internship program through TVA.
"They are actually TVA employees," Swafford said. "They get the badge, do the application; they get the drug test."
The ultimate goal
Coming in, school leaders knew the mission was to help students who were behind academically.
"When charter [schools] open, you can only take kids from failing, priority schools, and most of the kids were struggling," Swafford said. "If you're not careful, you become that failing, struggling school. We have come in and turned the place around."
Leaders are now working to establish more partnerships—with businesses, for example—to help support problem-based learning, Swafford said.
Leaders want to teach critical thinking instead of memorization and regurgitation of facts, she also said.
Although state test scores have improved, Swafford said students still need to improve on ACT scores.
"We're not good at ACT yet, so the real success is going to be when I have kids who score on an ACT level and come back and say, "I graduated from college,'" she said.
And she knows that not every student is meant to go to a four-year university, but Swafford wants to prepare students so that they have that option.
"My goal is to make sure that we put an academic program in place where we have given [students that choice to go to college], and to be one of those schools where disadvantaged kids come out and they are the doctors in this community; they are the lawyers," she said.