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What's the Matter With Detroit Schools, Pt II: Charter Conversion 'Solution' Fails

In 2013, Catherine Ferguson Academy, a celebrated school for teen mothers, created as part of the Detroit Public School system, was struggling to stay alive. It closed for good in 2014.

The charter management operation (CMO) that believed it could save Catherine Ferguson could not. It's just another disappointment for a district that's been governed by four Emergency Managers in six years. Another important program that could not be maintained.

Now, in 2016, it makes reading this piece from 2013 all the more poignant.

School closing protests--a first-world ed-problem, if there ever was one--are everywhere these days. In crumbling rust-belt urban centers and leafy suburbs, we're closing, consolidating, belt-tightening. It's hard to argue with population migration--Detroit lost a quarter of its citizens in the last decade--or for keeping every beloved neighborhood school open if half the classrooms are empty. But--"economic efficiency" isn't the only reason that schools are targeted for closing. We all know this.

I just visited a famous almost-closed school in Detroit: Catherine Ferguson Academy. The name may be familiar from MSNBC's coverage on the Rachel Maddow Show in April, 2011. CFA is a unique and innovative school for teen mothers, where students worked an urban farm, complete with animals, right on the playground. The storyline was good--the girls stayed in school, and most of them went on to two- and four-year colleges. But it cost money to provide care and education for the students' infants and toddlers. The school--measured by our new, "value-added" national yardstick, the resources necessary to raise test scores--was not "efficient," and was slated to close.

With TV cameras rolling (another feature of first-world "reform"), the students and some teachers staged a sit-in. Imagine the dramatic footage of pregnant girls being forcibly removed, while passionately defending the school they loved--the school that made it possible for them to achieve, and hope. At the 11th hour, a for-profit charter organization stepped in and "saved" Catherine Ferguson.

The founding principal, Asenath Andrews, began our site visit last week by telling us how she was persuaded by a patron, back in the mid-80s, to create a better way to educate teen moms in Detroit. Her benefactor was highly placed in Detroit Public Schools, and had the upper-level connections to keep a pet project going and funded in the increasingly unstable DPS system. She believed Andrews was just the person who could re-invent schooling for pregnant girls in Detroit, and threw her weight behind getting a school established.

Over more than two decades, Andrews and her staff crafted new ways to educate girls previously considered thowaways. There were special considerations for the students--summer school at a college campus for the girls and their children, early childhood education for infants and toddlers, even international travel. The fact is: CFA invested--in the best sense of the word--in teen mothers. And did so using the resources of a public school system.

Asenath Andrews is a fierce and compelling master educator. She told us she often did things without asking first (a practice with which I have some personal empathy). She took risks, seeking outside funding when she wanted something special for her girls. She developed unique curriculum with the (unionized) teachers she inherited, and kept stretching the boundaries of conventional public schooling. She worked through roadblocks and threats that a large, monolithic district kept throwing in her way. Andrews told us: I've been called a visionary, but I'm not. I just listened to pregnant girls talk about their hopes and their needs.

Catherine Ferguson Academy got a lot of recognition. They were highlighted on Oprah, and there was a feature-length documentary, "Grown in Detroit." The girls were going on to college, writing books, preparing for optimistic futures. At the very least, they were graduating high school with the skills and intention to support their children.

And now? After the charter conversion? Well, things have changed. Enrollment has dropped, precipitously. The bus driver who dropped us off at CFA thought the school had closed--perhaps because students (with their babies and tots) are now responsible for getting themselves to school, mostly using public transportation.

The charter management operator also inaugurated the Big Picture school model. I'm a fan of Big Picture, but it's a very different way to approach high school than the personally-tailored curriculum Andrews and her staff had developed over time. And there's been pushback from the students. That's the thing about empowering teenagers: they assume they have the right to tell you how they want to be educated.

So there's the micro-question: What does it take to keep something successful and amazing going--providing the same critical services, contributing to the value of the Detroit community and students' lives? Do you do whatever it takes, and deal with the consequences as they come?

Then there are the macro-questions: When resources from a public system build something wonderfully useful, addressing a social need with persistence and imagination, what do you lose when you turn over control and management to a private company? What strings are attached when you supplement public monies with private funding?

Or this: What are the ultimate outcomes of scrapping publicly funded education in favor of relying on luck, connections and philanthropy?

Asking those questions didn't seem polite at our visit. I know you don't sacrifice the people you love for a principle, and I deeply admired the work that Asenath Andrews did.

As we were leaving, one of the teachers in our group made a haunting comment: "I keep wondering where the babies and toddlers who started their educational lives here at Catherine Ferguson will go, when they're first graders in Detroit. Will just-right charters step up and fill the bill? Or will they go to public schools with jam-packed classrooms, scripted learning and constant turnover?"

Excellent questions.

Part III, upcoming: Say nice things about Detroit.

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