Growth, Interrupted: Teen Moms Fight to Save Innovative School (and Farm)

Update: Just before Thursday’s scheduled rally, CFA supporters got word that the beloved school will remain open as a charter school. Congratulations to Miss Andrews, Nicole Conoway and all the students and supporters. More info here.

Once one of the wealthiest cities in the nation, today Detroit is a question mark, a fallen angel, where a person can buy a house for pennies on the dollar (literally). A post-industrial city that lost half its population over the decades as it bled jobs and taxpayers, with a mayor whose ambitious “right-sizing” agenda has demolished over 3,000 houses in the last year, these days, the Motor City has nowhere to go but up.

The first time I visited, I fell in love with Detroit’s sad charm and wanted badly to move there from New York City, buy up one of those cheap houses and take part in what would seem a grand experiment – empty lots mean lots where people can grow food, food people need because there is little access to fresh produce in Detroit, where liquor stores vastly outnumber grocery stores. Abandoned buildings could be re-purposed to support local communities. For those who subscribe to the idea of crisis-as-opportunity, all eyes are on Detroit to see what alternative plans citizens there come up with and whether they work.

One thing that is working, and has been working for decades, is the Catherine Ferguson Academy, an innovative high school where pregnant and parenting teens can bring their kids to school for high quality early childhood education, eliminating the need for daycare, a costly deterrent to finishing school. Detroit’s teen pregnancy rate hovers at around 30 percent, and the city’s illiteracy rate is even higher, so when one considers the dropout rate among teen mothers -- as high as 70 percent -- it’s easy to see the value of the school, which boasts a 97 percent attendance rate and a 90 percent graduation rate (about 20 percent above the national average). In a recent opinion piece, CFA teacher Nicole Conoway notes that pregnancy is the number one reason that women drop out of school, and that children of teens are 13 percent more likely to be incarcerated as children of adults, but in spite of the clearly pragmatic nature of the school, it is slated to close its doors this week due to budget cuts.

While schools like it are few and far between, what really sets CFA apart is its large backyard, which is home to a working farm, complete with goats, chickens, bees and dozens of varieties of produce. Farmwork is integrated into the curriculum, teaching the students hands-on lessons in science, entrepreneurship and more. I first heard about the school last year from Dutch filmmaker Mascha Poppenk, whose cinema verite-style documentary, Grown in Detroit, offers the viewer a fly-on-the-wall perspective, allowing the students and the teachers to speak for themselves. To see what the school is really about, click on the link and pay what you will to watch it online.

Catherine Ferguson was threatened with closure last year, but managed to escape the budget axe. This year, though, things are looking much more grim for the unusual and highly successful school. In spite of the school’s success and local support for it, its fate is all but sealed, as Rachel Maddow reported last week.

But they're not going down without a fight.  Conoway, along with six students, staged a sit-in at the school in April and were arrested for their efforts. Supporters will make a big push on Thursday, and are viewing the struggle as part of a new civil rights movement. Conoway tells me this:

Momentum is growing immensely for our rally at the school on Thursday, where hundreds of supporters will gather, led by the students, to exercise our collective power to keep the school open. Supporters are coming from many groups and organizations, schools, and neighborhoods of Detroit, and from as far as Traverse City, and Chicago, each about a 5 hour drive. I'm told Danny Glover is flying in as well. Anyone who can get here by noon Thursday should come to the school at 2750 Selden.

Watching from afar, wishing you could do something?

Those who can’t make it can make donations for transportation from around the city - including bus rental for another high school’s marching band coming to perform, and to cover fines for protesters, leaders of this new civil rights movement, who are being charged from the April sit-in. (Two students have pre-trials set for July 11 and mine is July 15.) Donations can be made on-line at They can also join us in the Facebook group "Keep Catherine Ferguson Academy Open" and flood DPS Emergency Manager Roy Roberts and Gov. Snyder’s phone lines and email inboxes, and twitter with the message to Keep Catherine Ferguson Academy Open.

“The value of the school is immeasurable,” says Conoway. "As I wrote in a Detroit Free Press Online Commentary published today, CFA teaches students they have worth, and their lives aren’t over because they've become mothers.One CFA graduate just completed medical school. Another is about to have her first art show. If CFA closes, thousands more young women with this same potential will dropout. All of them and all their children deserve the chance to achieve that potential."

A public hearing for the school was canceled, and from where I'm standing, the process of its closure has been decidedly un-transparent and highly questionable. As Conoway remarks in her opinion piece, questions of funding are not as clear as they've been presented to the public (while providing education to the students' children is costly, it actually comes from a different line of funding than that of most public schools) and in any case, closing the school -- and for that matter, not creating more like it -- will cost Detroit in the long run.