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The one school in Detroit that should never be closed

 

History

The school is named after Catherine Ferguson, a famous freed slave who lived in New York in the early 1800’s, until her death in 1854. Although illiterate, she has been accredited as one of the largest promoters of education in impoverished areas of New York. The school began in the Salvation Army with a few desks and a playpen.

From the website of the award-winning documentary Grown in Detroit

If Detroit is to have any chance at all of rebuilding and renewing itself – short of dropping another Fat Man and Little Boy on the territory and then constructing a “new” Detroit on the bones and charred flesh of those of us left behind – then we must first accept the fact and truth of who we are and where we are in this place and time.  Right Now Today. Not who we were once upon a time in the glory years when we were the engine of America’s automobile industry, and not who we fantasize we will be someday somehow. This is about now.  If we can’t stand the sight of a mirror then we should simply put our expiration date on fast forward because the only realistic roads leading to survival must pass through that mirror.

Who we are is a predominantly poor, predominantly African American, predominantly working class American city. People who live here give the words ‘tough’ and ‘resilient’ their meaning – but even being tough and resilient has its limits. I have spoken in earlier posts about the fact that approximately 45 percent of our population is functionally illiterate, and that our public schools are in dire straits. Currently the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) budget deficit is $327 million. No, you heard me right the first time. Also, Wayne County leads the nation in home foreclosures, and Detroit, which is the largest city in Wayne County, is responsible for at least 80 percent of those foreclosures. Since I moved here in 1993, our population has dropped from right around 1 million to just over 700,000, which explains all the discussions about why we may need to shrink our city and why Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb has been so busy closing down schools to fit the size of who we are today and not who we used to be. Well, there’s the shrinking student population, which is accompanied by the shrinking tax base to support the school system, which is accompanied by…

And then there’s the unemployment rate…

From the Huffington Post, Dec. 16, 2009

Officially, Detroit’s unemployment rate is just under 30 percent. But the city’s mayor and local leaders are suggesting a far more disturbing figure — the actual jobless rate, they say, is closer to 50 percent.

As many have noted, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which culls federal unemployment data, does not account for all of the jobless in its widely-quoted national unemployment figures. Among those omitted: part-time workers who are looking for full-time jobs and frustrated job seekers who abandon their job search altogether.

(For some context, the official national unemployment rate is 10 percent, but the “underemployment rate” is 17.2 percent.)

Detroit city officials argue that, when workers who are underemployed are added to the calculation, the number of city residents who are out of work is close to one in every two.

I could go on ad infinitum giving you statistics and other numbers to try and paint a mathematical picture of where we’re at, but all the numbers and stats in the world couldn’t adequately paint a picture of what a school like the Catherine Ferguson Academy means to a city like Detroit. Catherine Ferguson Academy, which is the only school of its kind in the entire country, has received national recognition and acclaim for its success in providing a complete and supportive educational atmosphere to teenage mothers who otherwise might easily have fallen through the cracks. And so much of Detroit these days exists between those cracks. Currently nearly one in four births in some areas of Detroit are to teen mothers, and the rate of teen pregnancy is on the rise.

But at Catherine Ferguson, they have specialized in the manufacture of miracles. In a city that has struggled so hard for so long, this is a school that has accepted where we are as a community right now today. They have accepted the fact that these young mothers and their daily struggles are a huge part of who and where we are. They represent our present, and with their children that Catherine Ferguson is helping them to raise, they represent our future as well. This is why the success of this school is so critical, because this school is a critical building block in the rebuilding of Detroit. If you wipe out Catherine Ferguson, you are wiping out one of the brightest rays of light this city has.

 

From the April 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine

Ducks. Rabbits. Chickens. Vegetable gardens. No, it’s not a patch of rural America—it’s Detroit, and it just might be showing other towns across America how to regenerate, blossom, and thrive. 

See how the seed of this great idea is blossoming.

Step through the front doors of the Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit, and you’ve entered what seems to be a typically cash-starved inner-city school: dimly lit, with lockers painted the color of pea soup, lots of dingy old wood, and nothing even remotely luxurious or high-tech in sight. And since this is a school for teenage mothers and their babies in the poorest and most dangerous big city in America, well, it’s impossible not to worry that the students’ prospects may be as dim as the corridor.

But in the strange and strangely lovely city of Detroit, it’s a mistake to make assumptions. The students of this school are lucky in their principal, a tall, drolly funny woman named Asenath Andrews, and college acceptance is a condition for graduation here. Head out the school’s side door into a blaze of sunlight, and the most unlikely and inspiring sight appears: an urban farm that is almost breathtaking in its scope.

There are horses here grazing on what was once a running track. Endless beds of vegetables ring the oval perimeter. There’s a full-fledged orchard. There are rabbits, there are chickens, and there’s English teacher Andrew Kemp milking the goats. He and science teacher Paul Weertz grow almost all the feed for the farm on a vacant lot across town and get the students to help bale the hay.

 

It’s not that I don’t understand what  Bobb has had to deal with. Well, then again, I doubt I could imagine what it’s like trying to tackle DPS and all its problems. Bobb was appointed by  Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, in her second and final term to try and straighten out a serious mess which is too deep to go into right here. Some felt the appointment was not necessary and was actually another  state-backed DPS takeover led by an overpaid,  power-hungry agent of destruction who wasn’t even from here – and believe you me Detroiters place an out-sized value on being ‘from here’ or ‘not from here’. Others – at least initially – supported Bobb wholeheartedly and felt that perhaps the situation was so dire that  a temporary autocrat was needed. Maybe we just didn’t have time for debate and more debate. The lives of our children hung in the balance.

Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb

 

Today I sense the mood is probably more anti-Bobb than pro-Bobb, although the word is that he has recently been making a better effort to work with the members of the school board and they have worked to try and improve their relationship with him as well. And yet I also think most understand that, not unlike Mayor Dave Bing, Bobb is in a no-win situation. He is bound to be hated. You can’t possibly propose the magnitude of changes that are needed to better our schools and walk away loved. When he accepted this appointment he probably knew he was accepting a huge challenge, but I doubt he had any idea he was walking onto a firing range – and to a degree that is meant literally since his life has been threatened on more than one occasion.

So I’m trying to give some leeway here. I’m trying. But I swear I don’t see how any amount of leeway can explain how shutting down Catherine Ferguson Academy is an unavoidable consequence/side effect of streamlining/improving the Detroit Public Schools or our city as a whole. When these young women and their supporters staged their protest last week before eventually being hauled out of their beloved school by police, they were doing the only thing they knew how to do to draw attention to a serious and potentially irreparable injustice being done. Indeed, other protests have arisen when other schools were slated for closure in Detroit by Bobb, but I would argue few if any represented anywhere near as critical a loss to this city as Catherine Ferguson Academy.

Yes, Detroit Public Schools is in trouble. Yes, drastic measures must be taken and have been taken. But you can only remove so many vital organs from the patient before the patient is lost forever.

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