- Associated Press - Sunday, January 29, 2017

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - During one basketball game at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, a referee had to pause the game to pick up insulation that had fallen from the sagging ceiling of the school’s gymnasium, 18-year-old Carlisha McKenzie remembered.

The floors were dingy and slick, and the wooden bleachers and locker rooms were dilapidated in the gym of the Hamilton County girls charter school, which serves students in the city’s most racially and economically segregated neighborhoods.

But all that has changed.

On Wednesday, McKenzie and her classmates beamed as they took photos from the bleachers of the cheery, newly renovated gym - a nearly $750,000 project paid for with private donations.

“I love it,” said McKenzie, looking around at the bright orange padded bleachers, wooden floors and freshly painted Mustang sign on the wall. “It makes me feel loved.”

The project, spearheaded by the Hutton Firm, a local real estate and development company, represents the latest renovation work at the school that is gaining recognition for defying academic expectations under the leadership of local educator Elaine Swafford. The school is also in the process of raising funds to renovate the nearby library.

When Swafford came to CGLA four-and-a-half years ago, the school hadn’t graduated anyone who was college-ready. Among the graduating class of 2016, however, nine of the 21 seniors had high enough ACT scores to be considered ready for the rigors of college-level courses.

And in Swafford’s first 18 months, CGLA went from the brink of closure to being named a Tennessee Reward School for two consecutive years.

Another one of Swafford’s strengths has been recruiting community members to donate their time and money to give the students the same opportunities as their middle- and high-income peers.

During Wednesday’s ceremony to celebrate the renovated gym, Swafford told the story of how the idea had been hatched nearly two years ago.

Swafford was tending to her yard on a Sunday afternoon when Karen J. Hutton, the owner and CEO of Hutton Firm, called her cellphone.

“Tell me three things you need at that school,” Swafford remembers Hutton telling her.

The gym, which CGLA had purchased from Tennessee Temple University in Highland Park, was the first item on her list.

“Send me an email,” Hutton told Swafford.

So Swafford dropped her tools in the yard and, from her dining room table and still in her dirty work clothes, she sent the request. Several months later, in the fall of 2015, Hutton toured the dilapidated facilities with Swafford and she was convinced.

“And the rest is history,” Swafford told the large crowd gathered Wednesday in the gym, which is named for Hutton.

“It’s much deserved for our girls,” she said of the new facility.

Besides having a place to play sports and teach physical education, CGLA faculty member Justin Booker said the renovations have encouraged the students, who see the community rallying to support them.

It is also a physical reminder that hard work can pay off, he said, at a school where the athletics program always comes second to academics and high expectations.

“It’s not easy to go here,” he said. “The girls work hard and today they feel that reward.”

And before Wednesday’s festivities concluded, Swafford didn’t waste the opportunity to leave her students with a parting reminder of those expectations.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” she told them.

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Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com

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