For those unfamiliar, CFA is a public high school in Detroit that has been serving pregnant teens and young mothers for more than 26 years. Girls are able to bring their children to the school and through the proactive efforts of the entire CFA staff, are able to complete their high school education. CFA provides standard high school academic instruction and, uniquely, also provides instruction in urban farming and gardening. Students work in the school’s gardens raising edible vegetables and tending to horses, goats, chickens, pigs and geese. CFA also provides support for maternal health and child nutrition.
The Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit, Roy S. Roberts, who boasts a salary equivalent to that of 50+ poor Detroiters combined, has mandated that Catherine Ferguson be closed for good, news of which came to the school on Monday evening, just before I visited the school. The Principal did not appear confident that recent calls and petition drives for a public hearing on the issue would change the decision. Plans are already underway to empty the building.Principal Asenath Andrews was gracious enough to take some time out to speak to me yesterday. The school is located in an odd corner of Detroit, an older building nestled between vacant lots and what looks like a juvenile detention home. Walking in to the school, I am immediately greeted by a tough security guard. “What you want? You got an appointment?” I point out that I do, and a phone call later, she escorts me 20 feet down the hallway to Ms. Andrews office, who is taking with one of the staff by her desk.
A casually dressed student walks in behind me. Ms. Andrews is an imposing figure. “You know you out of dress code,” she barks to the student, who merely needs to get something signed. Watching the interaction between Ms. Andrews and the students, it is clear that the principal is full of compassion, but unyielding in making sure the girls follow school rules.“90% of girls who become pregnant during high school will not finish,” Ms. Andrews tells me plainly. Reasons include lack of family support, inadequate access to child care and, worst of all, stigma. “Pregnancy is a biological process. Developmentally, these girls are still girls and need help.” Catherine Ferguson has taken in girls facing one of the most difficult hurdles of their lives. Some are the victims of domestic violence and worse, human trafficking. CFA provides a safe and supportive home base for them and their children. Most importantly, CFA insures that these girls graduate from high school and continue toward a stable livelihood for them and their children.
“(Detroit) will lose two generations of people when this school closes, mothers and children,” Ms. Andrews said. Not only will these girls lose lifetime opportunities for education and work, but their children will be placed at incredible risk for falling into poverty themselves. Most importantly, Ms. Andrews says, “Detroit will lose a place where pregnant teens will always know that they can be safe. Detroit will lose a place that offers hope in a place where there are little demonstrable signs of hope.” Unfortunately, the plight of pregnant girls in Detroit is not on the minds of policy makers nor part of public discourse on the value of public education as a community good.
Nearly all of the graduates of CFA move on to 2 and 4 year colleges. In fact, acceptance to institution that provides post-high school training and confirmation of receipt of financial aid are requirements for graduation. The school not only provides educational opportunities, but also helps girls navigate the complex process of college applications and financial aid, information that they are unlikely to receive at home. Ms. Andrews and the staff at CFA insure that not only will girls be able to attend school, but that they will also have adequate access to child care once they leave CFA. Nearly all of these girls will be the first in their families to attend any type of college.Critics of CFA and ill=informed supporters of its closing have pointed to lackluster standardized test scores and falling graduation rates as justification for cutting Catherine Ferguson Academy from the DPS. Ms. Andrews points out that few girls start out at CFA, but rather come to the school (sometimes mid-year) as a result of an unplanned pregnancy. Thus, many girls have been at the school for less than a year and sometimes for mere weeks before standardized tests are issued. Ms. Andrews rightly points out that the previous institution should be held accountable for low test scores, not CFA.
Regardless, a walk down the main hallway of CFA reveals pictures of every graduating class in the past 26 years. CFA graduated approximately 45 girls in 2010, and past photos indicate that there have been as many as 300 graduated in a single year. In total, there are thousands of CFA graduates, the majority of which have completed some kind of post-secondary education and gone on to live healthy and productive lives.
When Ms. Andrews came to CFA 26 years ago, there were nearly 200 such schools in the U.S. that catered specifically to young mothers and pregnant teens. Public indifference has insured that there are now only three schools in the US like CFA. As of Friday, there will be two, one in Ohio and one in New York State. If the loss of CFA is any indication, then we can expect that soon there will be none.
Catherine Ferguson provided not only a priceless community service to a city filled with despair, but also served as a model for the role of public education in America. Conversations in the popular press reveal that the taxpayers have forgotten that high school students are human beings, focusing merely on test scores and mean school achievement as an indicator of the value of tax dollars. The benefits of a school like CFA are difficult to quantify, and often go to populations of students that garner little sympathy.
Race, poverty and exclusion have been hallmarks of the American landscape for decades, and Detroit is no exception. That CFA in particular has been slated for closing speaks loads to the priorities of policy makers and the general public. The indifference of state and local governments to the needs of impoverished and troubled African-American girls and their children is reprehensible.
I asked Ms. Andrews what the girls will do after CFA closes. She said that the students will go back to high schools in their local areas. After that, many will likely fall through the cracks. Detroit and the State of Michigan could have done something about Catherine Ferguson but chose not to. In the end, Detroit is not the only loser with the closing of CFA. We all lose when public schools actively choose not to support those who need it most. To me, the entire country loses.
Here’s to Ms. Andrews, CFA and all of the people that made it happen. Let’s hope that one day policy makers look back on CFA as a model for public schools and repeat it.