The Key Ingredient to Fixing a Failing School

How one leader took an all-girls charter from dismal to desirable

Matt Cardy / Getty

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.—I arranged a visit to the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy here fully intending to look into the rise of single-sex public education, particularly schools that focus explicitly on educating girls of color.

In the decade since No Child Left Behind prompted changes in federal law that ultimately made it easier to create all-boys and all-girls schools, the number of single-sex public schools has exploded, many of them aimed at boys and girls of color. (Full disclosure: I attended an all-girls parochial high school.) CGLA is the first single-gender public charter school in Tennessee. More than 90 percent of its students are black or Latino. Nearly all are low income. The school’s brochure says it was founded “to improve educational opportunities for low-income, underserved girls in Hamilton County.” So it seemed like a good place to start.

Yet it became obvious minutes after my visit began that it would be difficult to glean any sort of broadly applicable insight into the the topic from looking at CGLA. Sure, proponents of single-sex and charter schools can point to its rising test scores and college-going rate as “evidence” that their respective causes are a good thing. And critics can point to research published in Science magazine that suggests single-sex schools don’t foster better academic outcomes and accuse charters of pulling resources away from neighborhood schools. (More on all of that from my fellow Atlantic writer Melinda Anderson here.)

But what became abundantly clear is that CGLA is more an example of how much of an impact school leadership can have—regardless of school type—than it is of anything else.

Elaine Swafford was hired as CGLA’s executive director in 2012 and given less than a year to transform the then-failing school, which had launched several years earlier as the state’s first single-gender public charter school and then tanked. Not everyone in Chattanooga was fond of charters and CGLA looked, at best, like a good idea gone bad. Math proficiency was in the single digits. Few students had solid prospects for the future. But in the intervening years, under Swafford’s leadership, the school’s scores have shot up, graduation rates have risen, and a waiting list to get in has developed at the sixth and seventh grades. Last year, the school achieved a 93 percent graduation rate and nearly every graduate went on to college.

Over the last decade, new research has increasingly suggested that strong school leaders are a crucial component of success, and even that turning around failing schools is virtually impossible without a strong leader at the helm. That’s true for public schools, private schools, co-ed schools, and single-sex schools. That’s very true for CGLA. In other words, it doesn’t seem to be the all-girls factor or the charter designation that have propelled the school’s success. It’s Swafford’s leadership.

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Sometimes when I visit schools, it’s painfully obvious that the picture being presented by administrators is far too positive to reflect reality. Most school leaders are reluctant to talk about data. That’s not Swafford.

After a brief conversation in her office on the morning of my visit, she takes me to a room just off the main office whose walls are plastered with charts and graphs tracking how CGLA’s 350 girls are performing on state tests and benchmarks. A laminated page exclaiming “The DATA Speaks!” anchors the arrangement. On an adjoining wall, hundreds of magnets bearing individual names track each girl’s proficiency in a range of subjects, from below basic to advanced. At the lower grades, the “below basic” columns are stacked. With each grade, more magnets make their way toward “proficient” and beyond. Later, toward the end of my visit, I ask to go back and take a closer look at the data. Swafford says sure, points me in the right direction, and then heads off to a meeting, leaving me to go over the charts and figures. That’s far more access than most of the school leaders I interview grant reporters.

But Swafford relishes the data, she has large chunks of it memorized, and, perhaps since the numbers seem to be headed in a positive direction, is willing to share. She also expects her staff to focus intently on data and to hold themselves accountable, which has been a challenge for some. When she took over, half of the school’s teachers turned over after she informed the staff they would need to reapply for their jobs. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Swafford required the staff to answer the question, “How much responsibility is it of yours that students at CGLA are academically successful?” with 90 percent or higher. “I don’t hire people that say you can take a horse to water but you can’t make them drink,” she reportedly said. The school’s struggles, she told me, weren’t “kid issues.”

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.

That fundraising effort is likely getting easier as the school gains more attention. Several people interviewed for this story said they were initially skeptical of the school’s efforts, but have come to hold a favorable view of CGLA under Swafford’s leadership.

But that doesn’t mean everyone is thrilled. Teachers are expected to believe that every child is capable of success and then help them achieve it by doing whatever it takes, regardless of any obstacles. A number of girls left for local neighborhood schools after Swafford promised, and then delivered, more rigor. “Most kids will tell you I push hard,” Swafford said. She is a self-avowed believer in the value of homework and does not tolerate discipline issues. Instead of sending students home, though, she puts them in evening school. The school recently implemented “grit” grading, and, Swafford acknowledged unapologetically, “everybody’s not happy about it.”

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After my visit, I decamp to a nearby cafe (one of only a couple of dining options in a neighborhood that locals say is headed toward gentrification but that is still largely devoid of the yuppy restaurants and bars that inevitably come with that shift). While I’m there, a group of girls wearing the school’s blue uniform polo walk in. Eager to hear from kids who are not within earshot of Swafford, I ask what they think of CGLA and her leadership. Across the board, the girls say they liked the school. One says she likes that it “gives minority girls a safe space.” Of Swafford specifically, they eye each other before one asks if I’d met her. “She’s intimidating, ain’t she?” she laughs after I answer in the affirmative, before reiterating that she really does like the school and respects its leader.

If anything, the challenges Swafford stands to face in the coming years will be the result of her success. As more families in Chattanooga see CGLA’s scores, will more affluent families push for access? Swafford thinks it’s a definite possibility, which could make preserving the founder’s mission of serving the city’s low-income students, who are disproportionately likely to attend low-performing schools, a challenge.

There are already tentative plans to partner with an all-boys school that may open in a couple of years directly across the street, and CGLA is considering expanding into the lower grades. But while the school continues to garner both local and national interest, Swafford is intent on not getting distracted.

As the Chattanooga Times Free Press noted earlier this year in a feature on Swafford’s tenure, when she was asked at a recent panel on diversity how other schools might scale her approach, she demurred. “I don’t know what they should do,” Swafford said. “We are just trying to be the best all-girls charter school in Highland Park.”