School for Teen Mothers, “Jewel of Detroit,” Closes

How many stories do we have of education that works right? How many stories do we have of young women being empowered? How many stories do we have of pregnant and parenting students being given childcare, support and a chance at completing their education and going to college? How many stories do we have of sustainable farming in the middle of urban blight? How many stories do we have of Detroit setting an example for the rest of the country? I don’t know. But I do know that as of June 17, we will have one less.

The Catherine Ferguson Academy, a stellar example of how a school can meet the needs of pregnant and mothering students, is being closed by the school district’s emergency financial manager. One of only 4 similar programs in the country, the school is also a working farm where students are trained in animal care, entrepreneurship and farming. Their children attend daycare and kindergarten inside the school. The school has a 97 percent attendance rate and a 90 percent graduation rate.

When I first heard about the school in 2010, right when stories about Detroit and $100 houses were everywhere, it seemed like an impossibly happy program: sustainable food, empowered students, childcare galore! On the Canadian radio show As it Happens, student Cierra Hamiel proudly spoke about students traveling to South Africa for a business conference, her pride in feeding her son food she had grown, and her love for the school. It was a story ready to be made into a movie: all inspiration, all with the promise that it did indeed work. And it did work.

But that doesn’t matter. Even though students organized a sit-in in April to protest the possible closing of their school, and large presence of community support, the school district has decided to close Ferguson Academy along with several other schools. Rachel Maddow reports that the reasons given to her by Principal Asenath Andrews for the closing were cost and a declining student population. The school currently serves over 300 students.

These students are expected to transfer to their neighborhood schools, where they will have to find their own childcare. Principal Andrews told Maddow,

I’m so afraid that most of them will just quit… I’m not at all hopeful that our girls are going to get back into school if we’re not there…I think they feel that nobody gets how important it is for them to be there…or how much success they’ve had since they’ve been there.

Andrews recounted the story of a past student who recently graduated from medical school and had deeply valued her time at Ferguson. When asked what her own future plans were, Principal Andrews said “I think I’m going to retire.” She looked devastated.

This is a frustrating story on all levels, and one that does not have promise of a happy ending. It’s important to bring as much attention as possible to the great work that the students and faculty at Ferguson Academy have done, and the model of education, support, and mentorship they have made. You can sign the petition here.

World Socialist Website has coverage and a two part video on the school.

TOP: Catherine Ferguson Academy student paints protest signs with her daughter on segment of Rachel Maddow show.

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Danielle Roderick is a writer and full spectrum doula in Los Angeles. She's written for Ms. magazine, The Hairpin, The Awl, Splitsider and Delirious Hem.