Elaine Swafford didn’t want the walls to come down — but they had to.
It isn’t just a building that makes a school.
Demolition began on the old Highland Park Grammar School, on South Hawthorne Street behind the all-girls charter school that Swafford leads, last month.
Now all that remains of the old school building, which sat vacant for years, is a pile of rubble. By June 2021, despite the coronavirus pandemic, a new school should stand in its place, Swafford said — the new Montessori Elementary at Highland Park.
“There were some thoughts about reuse and renovate, we tried our best to make that an option, and it turns out it wasn’t,” Swafford told the Times Free Press. “We are going to build a new strong, safer builder. We are waiting for all the rubble to clear and hopefully we’re in the building no later than end of June next year.”
Launching an elementary school has been part of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy’s long-term plan for years. After its brother school, Chattanooga Preparatory School, opened in 2018, Swafford knew it would soon be time to explore expanding the charter school’s footprint.
She settled on a Montessori-style school, and since the charter application was approved by the Hamilton County school board in April, there’s been mostly praise for the idea.
“I truly embrace the school because I think it will be beneficial for the community. To be able to provide Montessori in a public school setting is a great opportunity for schools,” Driver told the Times Free Press. “I really don’t see it as competition. I see this as another school that can enhance the community.”
Old Highland Park Grammar School comes down to make way for Montessori
Montessori-style schools typically have more individualized curricula, with learning occurring at a student’s own pace as they complete self-directed activities. The method was created by Italian doctor Maria Montessori in the late 19th century and today, most Montessori opportunities are only available in preschool or private school settings.
Swafford said that is what sets her school apart from the current Montessori school in town, which is a private, tuition-charging school with a small student body of approximately 200.
Public charter schools are funded by both public tax dollars for education and private funds, but are privately owned and operated. Public charter schools don’t charge tuition and are free for Hamilton County students to attend.
“This school is for kids who would not be offered this advantaged education because they couldn’t afford it. We’re going to offer it to all children, and we are going to attract children from the same ZIP codes we already serve,” Swafford said. “We want to give kids who wouldn’t have an advantaged education the chance.”
The charter has already hired a school leader who will help guide it through construction and launch. Swafford, who is still leading the girls academy and is serving as interim leader of Hamilton County Schools’ MidTown Learning Community, said the school is on track for opening in time for the 2021-22 school year.
Swafford said she wants to preserve some of the neighborhood and the former school’s history in the new building.
“[Highland Park Grammar School] was a place that impacted lives, and MEHP will preserve this heritage by honoring contributions of administrators and faculty and celebrating experiences of students,” she wrote recently in a letter to the Highland Park community. “Realizing we would be constructing a new facility, our architects incorporated the school’s cornerstone as well as some of the original exterior bricks and interior woodworking into the MEHP design. We want MEHP to reflect a commitment to educational excellence that began in 1922 when Highland Park Grammar School opened its doors.”
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.