Detroit high school for pregnant teens is closing – this time, for real

Jun 5, 2014

It's kind of heartbreaking. 

The Catherine Ferguson Academy serves pregnant and parenting moms in high school.
The Catherine Ferguson Academy serves pregnant and parenting moms in high school.
Credit Catherine Ferguson Academy

The Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit is closing at the end of this month, due to low enrollment and financial trouble.

That's the announcement from the Wayne RESA, the intermediate school district that held the school's charter, and the whole thing feels like deja vu.

A beloved school repeatedly finds itself on brink of closure    

The nationally  praised school for pregnant teens and young moms was on the chopping block just a couple years ago, when Detroit Public Schools said they couldn't afford to keep it running.

Students protested. Crowds rallied. Rachel Maddow made it a pet issue for months. 

"For a group that is generally almost expected to drop out of school, this particular school expects that they will not drop out; that they will go to college," Maddow said at the time. 

"Detroit Public Schools says 90% of Catherine Ferguson students graduate, and for the past 9 

"For a group that is generally almost expected to drop out of school, this particular school expects that they will not drop out; that they will go to college."

years, every single graduate of Catherine Ferguson Academy has been accepted to college. Every single one," she added. 

Then, at the last minute, it looked like a solution had been found. 

"Detroit Public Schools contacted us kind of panicky, [and they] wanted a solution to keep it open. Because they knew it would be difficult for the students of the program not to have a school to go to," says Steve Ezikian, deputy superintendent of the Wayne County Intermediate District. 

"So we, quite frankly within an afternoon, figured out a path to keep it open."

That path was to make the academy part of the Blanche Kelso Bruce charter district.

And for Catherine Ferguson's principal, G. Asenath Andrews, it looked like a new day for the academy. 

"I think that we'll do better [now than with DPS,]" she told Maddow on her national television program.

"We'll have more resources. (The new charter company,) they get it. They don't think in small, little boxes, they really want kids to experiment and discover and do a lot of things. So I think we'll be better off."

"I'll be really surprised if I'm calling you ... in a year, going 'help me!' But I don't think so. I think this is a step up for my girls and the school," she added. 

New charter company couldn't save school 

But that charter district is what's called a "strict discipline academy."

That means it requires all students to go through the justice system to get a court referral. 

"We knew it wasn’t a perfect fit, but it was the only option at the time," says Ezikian. 

"We knew...[court referrals] were going to be a problem for some of the young women...because they felt it was a stigma."

"And the administration at Catherine Ferguson Academy recognized that was going to be a problem for some of the young women who were considering entering the school, because they felt it was a stigma."

Ezikian says he doesn't know why, exactly, enrollment has dropped to just about 100 students since the school went from DPS to charter. 

It could be shifting demographics. It could be that it's easier, perhaps, to be a pregnant or parenting teen at regular schools now. 

And operating a financially solvent school in Detroit at this time is no cake walk, with increasing competition for a dwindling number of students in the city. 

But either way, Ezikian says Catherine Ferguson wanted out of the Blanche Kelso Bruce charter district. 

"So last year they asked us to separate them from Blanche Kelso Bruce and make them an independent charter, which we did, so they didn’t have to go through that process anymore."  

But this past year, even without the court referral requirement, apparently wasn't enough time to turn around Catherine Ferguson's shrinking student body. 

New "Pathways Academy" wants to pick up where Catherine Ferguson left off 

Detroit Public Schools system, the district that originally operated Catherine Ferguson, now says they'll be authorizing a new school this fall.

That high school will serve pregnant and parenting moms, and offer preschool and child care. 

In an email, DPS spokesman Steven Wasko said:

"Earlier this school year the DPS Charter Schools office sought proposals from highly qualified entities to open this school based on serving the needs of students in this population. We are pleased that the school will open this fall and that it will add to the comprehensive portfolio of DPS and DPS-authorized charter educational programs for Detroit's students."

A company called Innovative Educational Programs, based in New Jersey, will manage the new school.

James Simonic is their president. 

He says yes, they are a for-profit company, but they want to open this school (which he says will be called Pathways) because of the gaping need Catherine Ferguson will leave behind.

"These are kids that are in most need. It not only effects this generation, but the generation that follows."

"These are kids that are in most need. It not only effects this generation, but the generation that follows," he said by phone this afternoon. 

"And if they don't have a high school diploma, the chances of making it past poverty are slim to none. The average high school graduate can make $700,000 more in their lifetime than a child who does not graduate from high school."

Simonic says IEP used to run the school inside the youth detention center in Detroit, though currently they do not operate any schools in Detroit or Michigan. 

They plan to offer parenting classes, as well as accelerated learning courses so students can graduate sooner than they might in regular high schools. 

They've already hired a principal named Nathaniel King, who Simonic says comes highly recommended from DPS.

As for the current Catherine Ferguson staff, including counselors and psychologists, he says: 

"They are all welcome to apply for the jobs. Nobody will be guaranteed a job, but with their expertise and their experience, I'm sure that certainly some of them will cut the mustard and be hired."

Simonic says they are planning an aggressive, community-based recruitment effort to attract students to the new school.  

"But I don't think we're so much competing with other schools to get them in. I think unfortunately, if we don't get them, they won't go to school," he said.