Asenath Andrews: 'A Place Where People Know Us'

Detroit's Catherine Ferguson Academy has a 90% graduation rate with pregnant teens

Asenath Andrews
Asenath Andrews

When Asenath Andrews talks about graduating students, the stakes are doubled. She's the founder and principal of Detroit's Catherine Ferguson Academy, and her school accepts only pregnant teens and young mothers. So she's fighting for both mother and child.

Named after Catherine Ferguson, founder of New York's first Sunday school, the high school started in the mid-20th century as a Salvation Army program. Pregnant teens and young mothers would be sent there for a few weeks – mostly to prepare to have their children adopted. In the 1960s, Andrews said, "The story would be that you were traveling in Europe, if you were white, and you'd gone down South to see relatives, if you were black." Finally, the Salvation Army convinced Detroit public schools to provide some teachers. However, Andrews said, "The only way they could provide services was to have all the kids declared disabled. It was a different time, to be sure."

It finally took a new special ed director to stand up and say that a pregnant girl is not disabled for the program to be moved into alternative education. Another member of the administration reached out to Andrews to see if she wanted to take it over. At the time, she was working in a school for the gifted and talented and was finishing up her Ph.D. in educational psychology. When she arrived, she said, "There were just 40 girls and me and four teachers." But she had goals: "I came with the expectation that I would get, and my kids would deserve, everything that everybody else got." In 1986, the program became a full-fledged high school, but that transformation did not begin with the administration; it started with Andrews and her team asking the girls what they needed. She explained, "They said, 'We need a place where we can bring our children. We also need a place where people know us.' The success of the school was shaped by the needs of the girls."

The school is more than just a regular 9-to-12th-grade campus with a day care. With a four-day week, the program is intensive, but with leeway for young mothers' needs. There is no minimum attendance requirement, but students must prove they understand the material. Additionally, there is support for the babies and toddlers, with almost as many teachers and staff for them as for their mothers. While there is a lot of discussion about pre-K giving kids a head start, Andrews said, "Age 0-3 is probably more significant than 3-5." Her aim is to provide "on-site early education, because 'child care' denotes a passive 'we feed you and make sure you don't hurt yourself.'"

Asenath Andrews: 'A Place Where People Know Us'

The extra services don't come cheap, and Andrews admits the budget takes "a little magic and a lot of blessings." Sometimes it means making trade-offs. She said, "We never had a social worker, we never had a librarian ... but teachers who are really committed to kids can tell you what we can do without, what we can't do without, and what extra responsibilities we're going to take on." Enrichment programs – like the school's urban farm – can change lives but hollow out the finances. To take some students to South Africa, Andrews took any speaking engagement she could. "I went to one place and they'd pay me $200 and I'm talking in the back of a grocery store, and I'd go to another place and they'd pay me $2,000 to talk in a library."

The school has a 90% graduation rate – yet Andrews still hears disdain from tut-tutting community members and even fellow educators. She recalled one district fine arts festival at which she was told that it was inappropriate for her students to dance in front of the audience. She withdrew her school from the festival completely. She said, "If we can't have full participation, we won't do it."

In May 2011, the stakes for Ferguson got higher. Michi­gan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder installed former Gener­al Motors vice president Roy Roberts as emergency financial manager; since then, in a brutal culling, he's closed 10 schools and consolidated six more. The academy only dodged the budget axe by being transferred to the Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy, a for-profit charter network running six alternative learning campuses within the Detroit system. Andrews said, "On Monday, charter schools were the enemy, and on Tuesday I was a charter school."

The change was painful, not least because the charter is non-union, and there was no centrally negotiated pay scale. Andrews said, "Now I had to decide, what should people be paid, what is an industry wage?" It's made hiring a much more monumental decision for Andrews. When the campus was still part of the Detroit Public Schools, she said, "If there was someone on your staff who was not a good fit and you could find a way to release them, then they had an opportunity to go somewhere else and see if it works there. In a charter, if you release them, they're unemployed, and that's such a responsibility."

Nevertheless, the core mission has survived the transition intact. Andrews said, "Both our authorizers and our management company got it. They were familiar with what we did and how we did it. When I talked to the superintendent, when I asked him, 'Well, what do you think?' he'd say, 'Well, you'd know better than I would.'"

Asenath Andrews delivers a keynote speech at 4:30pm, Tuesday, March 5, in Ballroom D of the Austin Conven­tion Center.

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