But Swafford hasn’t reduced kids to numbers, either. In fact, she favors an approach to education that more schools are considering but that not all are thrilled about or equipped to deliver: the community-school model. “We are the parents” for many CGLA students, she said. She calls it the “home side” of school. Swafford’s way of thinking is based on the idea that if she can’t deliver the well-rounded education both in and out of the classroom that middle-class kids get, her students will never catch up to their more affluent peers. So beyond math and reading, she sees it as the school’s job to instill soft skills, like how to interact with visitors, for instance.
When I follow Swafford into a ninth-grade classroom, two students rise from their desks, shake my hand, and introduce themselves, offering a brief description of what they’re studying. On the day I visit, the class is discussing the 9/11 Falling Man photo. “I like challenging things,” Hawa Barrie, 13, tells me, explaining that there is a lot of homework, but that she feels like she is learning at the school.
After we leave, I turn to Swafford a little surprised. This is not the class she initially intended to show me (the students in that course ended up being in a different part of the building), so it couldn’t have been scripted. No, she said, what the students say is not scripted, but someone from each class is expected to greet each visitor. As if to prove her point, Swafford takes me to a nearby eighth-grade algebra class where Carrigan Collins, 13, repeats the exercise.
Each student at CGLA is assigned an adult mentor and Swafford recently hired a college-access counselor to help students work through the federal financial-aid application and to stay connected with recent graduates. Every other Wednesday afternoon, students have advisory periods and meet with their mentors. On the alternate Wednesdays, they work with local community partners like Girls Inc. while their teachers have professional development.
Swafford also hired a wellness coach. There are yoga classes and zumba lessons, and, the girls attest, Swafford can frequently be found sweating away alongside her students. There’s a robotics team and a science club. Girls participate in a program called Mustang Leadership Partners (owned by the school’s co-founder, the local philanthropist Sue Anne Wells, who, during a brief conversation, did nothing but gush over Swafford’s leadership), where they hone some of the soft skills employers look for through equestrian training.
After she recently discovered that 85 of the school’s 350 students don’t have internet access at home, Swafford set about securing a hotspot for each wifi-less child. “We know everything about our kids,” she said.
The school receives some extra funding from the government because it serves such a high number of low-income students, but it’s not nearly enough to pay for all of the programs the school offers, so Swafford has gotten very good at raising money. Where other school leaders might be able to imagine some of the extracurriculars and support services the girls at CGLA have access to, few seem as adept at actually securing the funding to deliver them. (Swafford is also the co-founder of an education consulting firm, so she’s not unfamiliar with the corporate world.) Twenty-nine percent of the school’s budget is from fundraising, she told me, which helps fill a $4,500-per-student gap in funding.