The scene on Wednesday morning in midtown Detroit bore all the hallmarks of an American rite of passage. To the sound of "Pomp and Circumstance," young men and women in jewel-colored caps and gowns marched proudly down the aisles of the Max M. Fisher Music Center. The girls teetered in their too-high heels and tittered with excitement, while the boys feigned a cool nonchalance. As they streamed into the theater, their families called out from the upper balconies. By the time the seats were filled, their cheers were deafening.
That the event bore all the trappings of a familiar ritual belied the fact that for many of these students, it was anything but. The commencement—which marked the graduation of students in summer sessions in public schools throughout Detroit—took place within a city whose dropout rate is upward of 50 percent, a city that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called “ground zero for education in this country.” Throughout the morning’s events, graduates were reminded that their mere presence there was a victory: If they were there in the room that morning, they were bucking a devastating trend.
But the victory was especially pronounced for the four young women in gleaming white robes graduating from Catherine Ferguson Academy. Brianna Bates, Tia Griffin, LaChae Oates, and Lanette Samith each gave birth to their children before they were 18 years old. In the United States, on average less than 40 percent of girls who become moms in high school receive their diplomas before age 22. On top of that, less than two months earlier, Ferguson Academy had been slated to close altogether.
Samith, 17, bounced from foot to foot as she waited to enter the theater, and confessed that she had hardly slept the night before. “I didn’t eat this morning either,” she said. “I was too excited!”
Ferguson is unlike any other school in Detroit, and it’s been a revolutionary experiment in helping young mothers complete their secondary education and, ultimately, break the cycle of poverty that often besets one generation after the next. The school allows teenage moms to bring their children with them to school, and it provides those kids with early education. Detroit’s only institution specifically for girls who are pregnant or teen mothers, it also boasts a working farm, replete with chickens, bunnies, honey-bees, and even an idyllic red barn built by the students themselves.
“I don’t think I would have finished the two classes I needed to graduate” if not for Ferguson’s policies, said Oates. She recalled just how close the school had come to being shut down, and what that would have meant for her and her infant son. For Oates, finding affordable childcare that would allow her to attend classes might have proved impossible.
It’s not just Oates who believes that her success is directly connected to her enrollment at Ferguson. In 2004, the school was recognized by the National Association of Secondary School Principals for outstanding achievement among schools with high poverty rates, and it boasts an astounding 90 percent graduation rate. For nine years straight, every graduate of Ferguson has been accepted into college.
But despite the school’s tremendous success—it was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary called Grown in Detroit—the city announced in April that because of a $327 million district deficit, it would close Ferguson Academy along with two other alternative schools. The students, who numbered about 250 in the 2010-2011 school year, were devastated. During spring break, more than a dozen of them, accompanied by a teacher, staged a sit-in to protest the closure. They were arrested within hours. Outside the school, police turned on their sirens, seemingly to drown out the sound of the students’ chants.
The resulting video, showing pregnant teenagers handcuffed and shoved into waiting police cars for the crime of sitting in peaceful protest, drew nationwide attention; MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow devoted significant coverage. In late June, Ferguson was given a reprieve when the city announced that rather than close altogether, the school would be operated as a charter, outside the umbrella of the Detroit Public School system.
For principal Asenath Andrews, a Detroit native who has been a principal at Ferguson for 24 years, the clemency was welcome, but its arrival at the 11th hour was more than a little unnerving. Her office is still filled with boxes of books and supplies that she’d started to pack up in anticipation of the school’s closure. And she gave away so many Post-Its and pens that there are barely any left. “It was a crazy time,” she says, shaking her head. Still, now that all’s said and done, Andrews says she wouldn’t have it any other way. As a charter school, she’ll have both more money and more autonomy. “It’s like moving out of your parents’ house,” she laughs. “I wouldn’t go back, even if I could.”
But while charter schools are being treated as a potential panacea for America’s educational ailments, thanks in part to last year’s Obama-endorsed documentary Waiting for "Superman," when it comes to their effectiveness, the jury is still out. A 2009 Stanford University study found that nationwide, just 17 percent of charter schools were doing any better than public schools at educating students—and meanwhile, the study found, more than a third did worse. The stats are even more dismal in Detroit. Last year, city charters performed worse than public schools in math, science, reading, and writing.
Whether becoming a charter school is a blessing or a curse remains to be seen. But either way, Wednesday’s commencement ceremony was the last time that Ferguson graduates will be included among those matriculating from Detroit public schools. And despite the morning’s jubilant spirit, the ceremony took place under the long shadow of the city’s persistent economic struggles. Pastor Anthony Houston, who gave the invocation, referred to the “murky and turbulent waters of urban education,” and prayed not just for the students, but for the city itself.
“God, we pray your blessings on our city,” he said. “On our schools, and on our principals who have been charged with turning those schools around.” The students and their families assembled in the auditorium that morning bowed their heads along with him, but they knew full well that solving the challenges their city is facing will probably take a great deal more than prayer alone.