Saving Teen Moms

When Asenath Andrews saw that pregnant teens in Detroit were being tossed to the side, she created the Catherine Ferguson Academy—a school, home, farm, and safe house rolled into one.

03.06.12 4:50 PM ET

Principal Asenath Andrews has been like a surrogate mother to thousands of teen moms in Detroit. When she first started working with pregnant teens, Andrews taught in a school that was more a space where girls waited to give birth rather than an institution of learning. Dismayed by an early education program that consisted of a giant crib for the babies who weren’t given up for adoption, she decided to create a healthy environment for teen moms and their children by founding the Catherine Ferguson Academy in 1986.

Today, students drop their children off at the on-site nursery before going to class. Throughout the day, Andrews, an ever-present authority, peppers the girls with sayings like, “When you had a baby only the baby came out, your brain didn’t.”

Principal Andrews built the Academy through pure innovation, designing unorthodox curricula when necessary. She aims to rebuild the girls’ self-esteem in order to show them their lives aren’t over because they’re teen moms. In fact, she tells her students they’re even more responsible now for educating themselves, so they pass along the value of education to their children. A unique requirement of the school, for example, is that each girl must be moving on to higher education before graduation.

The teaching staff at Catherine Ferguson Academy works to instill a sense of sustainability through an inventive urban gardening program. At first, Andrews had the new mothers grow small vegetables behind the Academy, but as the school expanded so did the garden—now a full-fledged working farm. They sell their vegetables and raise rabbits, cows, and goats.

Andrews also emphasizes a global perspective in learning. Many of the girls would never have left the 50-mile radius of their neighborhood had she not started sending small groups of students abroad. Their first trip was to South Africa. When the girls returned, they were asked about the most important part of the trip. One girl responded, “My son will never be a neighborhood boy, he will be a boy of the world because his mother has gone outside of the United States, so his life is now a life of international perspective.”

Like the tough but loving mother she is, Principal Andrews ends every day with this announcement over the loud speaker: “When you leave here today, you should be smarter than you were when you got here, because smart is what you get, not what you are.”