New Detroit charter school is changing the education paradigm

Sep 6, 2013

What if something other than jobs could rebuild Detroit?

What if the purpose of education was to help children reach their highest human potential?

What if we had a conversation about the meaning of service to our community?

These are just a few of the many questions being raised at a new charter school in Detroit. It’s called the James and Grace Lee Boggs School. They opened their doors this week.

The to-do list for opening a new school is huge.

You’ve got to find a building and fix it up. You’ve got to hire teachers, write a curriculum, figure out a mission. Then there’s all this other stuff you’d never think of, like laying down new wood chips by the jungle gym. And then of course you have to find parents who want to send their kids to your school.

The Boggs School started this week with kids in kindergarten through 4th grade, with a plan to roll out a new class every year. So by 2026, they’ll be K-12.

Julia Putnam is one of the founders of the Boggs School and the principal. She grew up in Detroit and graduated from a Detroit Public high school. She went on to teach for five years at a charter school, but after a while became disillusioned. 

“I realized the writing on the wall was like, oh, this is not a place where my voice is valued. This is not a place where I’m going to have any say in what happens. The leadership skills that I do have are of no interest,” she said.

So about five years ago, Putnam and a group of teachers and parents and community organizers started to think about opening their own school. And not just any school, but a place that creatively addresses the current circumstance Detroit finds itself in.

"I want to prepare kids to ask those questions because that's what's going to create the future, asking those questions. Not thinking that we have the answer and then telling kids what they should be doing."

“We’ve been growing our economy and this is where it’s gotten us. These vacant lots, these abandoned houses. It’s like, well industry is not working here and I can make more money someplace else so I ship it out and all the jobs are gone. And so people can’t afford these houses so they leave them. And so what happens if we grow our souls here? What would it look like then?” said Putnam. “I want to prepare kids to ask those questions because that’s what’s going to create the future, asking those questions. Not thinking that we have the answer and then telling kids what they should be doing.”

The school is named after James and Grace Lee Boggs, long time Detroit community activists and writers whose house is just a few miles east of the new school. They believed that getting young people actively involved in their education is the key to building community.

The Boggs School sits on a quiet residential street in a building that’s more than 100 years old. Just across the street is a well maintained white bungalow with a perfectly mowed lawn. And, as is the case with a lot of streets in Detroit, there are several vacant lots here.

The idea of place is a big one for the founders of the Boggs School.  The neighborhood where the school sits is going to be a big part of the school. It’s called place-based education and it’s a model that’s already being practiced in small pockets around country. There’s a K-8 school in Boston called Mission Hill which has become a kind of model/sister school to Boggs. 

“I want a kid to graduate from our school and be able to look around and be like, I’ve been in this neighborhood forever, I know exactly what businesses will work. I know exactly what the needs are in this community, but also in Detroit in general,” said Putnam. “I want to graduate the next mayors, the next city council people, the next business owners of Detroit. I want to graduate the next president and a president who really has some real understanding of social capital and the needs of society and what it means to be a citizen and not just make money.”

Amanda Rosman will be the executive director of the school. Rosman spent 11 years teaching in Detroit before helping found the Boggs School. 

“I’m also a school parent. My son will be in 4th grade here,” Rosman said. “Normally as teachers, we’d put it through the filter of, would we do this with our own kids? Is this acceptable for our own kids? But they’re actually here, so everything that happens here, our own kids will be experiencing it.” 

Like Rosman, Principal Julia Putnam has a child here too.

It says a lot when the people you work with and the people who say they’re passionate about something believe in it enough to educate their own children in the system that they’re asking you to put your child in.

*I will continue to bring you updates on the struggles and triumphs of the Boggs School over this academic year.