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School for teen moms saved from closure

School is out for the summer in Detroit. And for several schools in the cash-strapped district, classes are done forever.

Until today, that was the story at Catherine Ferguson Academy – an award-winning school for pregnant teens and young moms.

Changing the storyline

Preparations were under way at Catherine Ferguson Academy in the morning for a big rally to protest the school’s closure. Students were milling around in the hallways. Some were making signs. Across town, protestors were getting on a bus to join the demonstration.

But on the 14thfloor of the Fisher building, something else was happening.

"Good morning, everyone," Roy Roberts told reporters at a news conference he called. "I want to change your storyline."

Roberts announced that Catherine Ferguson Academy – along with two other schools – would be taken over by a charter operator, instead of closing.

 "Miracles still happen"

Back at the school, staff and alumni and students celebrated with hugs and screams.

"I’m speechless," said student Jaslyn Williams. "Oh my God, I’m so happy, like oh my God. I was just figuring out not an hour ago what I was going to do. I can breathe now."

Catherine Ferguson serves about 250 young moms like Williams, and 120 children.

"Miracles still happen," said school nurse Darlene Allen. She says Catherine Ferguson is more than just a school.

"A lot of our students don’t have intact families. So that’s what we were for them. We were their mothers, their fathers, their sisters, their brothers. We were their family."

But as much acclaim as the school has earned, it’s also an expensive one to run. The per-pupil cost at Catherine Ferguson is more than $12,600. That’s about $5,000 more than the average cost across the district.

"We're not scared of chickens"

But officials with the charter operator that will take over Catherine Ferguson say they have the funding and partnerships to make it work. Blanche Kelso Bruce already has eight alternative education schools in Detroit, and it will take over two additional Detroit public schools slated for closure.

Blair Evans is the chief administrative officer for Blanche Kelso Bruce. He says his staff also has the resources to help with the farm outside Catherine Ferguson’s back door.

"We have a greenhouse. We grow fish, we grow plants. And that whole permaculture process is part of what we do already," Evans said. "So we do have some additional resources that they can draw upon. We’re not scared of chickens and goats and plants."

In addition to chickens, goats, and plants, science teacher Paul Weertz has also brought in rabbits and turkeys, and there's also an orchard. Weertz's students run research experiments on the farm.

"The farm is just a way to educate the students in the school – both the early childhood and the high school students," he said. "So we’ve developed it over 20 years which is not just good for our students, it’s probably a good idea of elementary and high school students around the city."

Many of the school’s supporters would like to see Catherine Ferguson become a model for other schools. That would have been difficult had it closed for good. Instead, the moms and babies and goats and chickens will all be back in the fall.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
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