Last spring, frenzy broke out at the closing of the last Detroit Public School (DPS) for pregnant and parenting teen girls in the state of Michigan the only of it’s kind out of four in the nation. The closure of Catherine Ferguson Academy (CFA), the school best known to some for its large on-campus farm complete with chickens and goats. The school fueled passionate protests, including one where students were arrested for staging a non-violent occupation of the school.
But then something unexpected happened: “DPS did, in fact, close CFA,” said principal Asenath Andrews. “But the Blanche Kelso Bruce (BKB) school district [immediately] re-opened us as a charter.” As Tuesday marked the first day of school for CFA students and their children, Andrews, who has served as the principal of CFA for the past 20 years, reflected on the past year and future plans for the new charter.
“Now, a year later, are we better off? Ten times better,” Andrews said. “We are thankful to people who came out and wrote letters to keep us from closing, but it was Blair Evans of BKB who called the right people in the county and the state and got CFA into the BKB district.
Still, after the flurry of closure talk has stopped, enrollment has been low with 270 students on board last year, just over half its total capacity. “After it became a charter, DPS kept telling people we were closed,” Andrews said. “Even kids who went to school here said, ‘I thought it closed.’” Now the challenge is to find ways to reach a hard-to-pin demographic: pregnant and parenting teen girls.
“There’s no one place where teen mothers hang out,” Andrews said. She is hoping to get the word out about CFA through radio spots, enrollment festivals at the school, and word of mouth. CFA is moving toward large-scale plans to build and revamp their education model in the BKB district now that the threat of closure has been lifted.
As one of six schools in the BKB district, CFA will be a major participant in building the BKB intentional living community: a housing, agricultural, environmental and social living project designed and built by students, for students with the guidance of experts in the field. This academic year is also the first it will utilize the Big Picture learning model, a radical redesign of the traditional education methods.
The Big Picture learning design, created by education specialists Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor in 1995, is geared to encourage “inciting and effecting” change in the U.S. educational system based on real-world learning projects. “With big picture you’re not making kids do stuff for credit,” Andrews said. “You ask them, ‘What do you want to do?’”
Big Picture projects range from international service trips to shadowing local experts in a student’s field of interest through flexible internships two days a week. “I like the fact that we go out in the field and choose what we’re interested in,” said Marketta Smith, 17, a senior at CFA who has been attending the school for the past three years. “I want to learn to be a teacher, but if I get into that work and can’t deal, my mind will change,” She said. “ You get to know if you really want to do something based on real experience.”
At CFA there’s no enrollment deadline. “Enrollment is forever—until we’re full,” Andrews said, urging students and parents to call (313) 596-4767 to enroll. The message Andrews hopes to get to prospective students is that CFA is the not only trailblazing education models, but provides a supportive environment for unique student needs.
Students don’t have to worry about child care while they’re at CFA because those services are provided on site.
“We don’t call it day care,” Andrew said of CFA’s early education program. “These are just our youngest learners.
CFA students have access to free prenatal care, midwife coaching, and bi-monthly checkups with their children through the support of local schools and hospitals such as the University of Detroit Mercy, Henry Ford Hospital and the DMC’s Hutzel Women’s Hospital .
As for the on-campus farm, it’s still fully operating with plans to supply school grown veggies for lunches in the district in 2013. There are also agribusiness internships available, where students can create value-added products using milk form the goats on site or with the honey provided from the on-campus honeybee hives.
“We are open to ideas students have for internships and learning, “ Andrews said. “The sky is the limit.”