Helping teen moms stay in school
02:34 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Detroit charter school gives opportunity to pregnant teens and young moms

Catherine Ferguson Academy was founded three decades ago as public school

Principal Asenath Andrews has led the school since its inception

New curriculum focusing on personalized learning has led to protests, lawsuit

Detroit, Michigan CNN  — 

A winter’s thicket of weeds still choked the soil outside Catherine Ferguson Academy late last month when the old school’s loudspeaker crackled on.

“Good morning, good morning, good morning,” Principal Asenath Andrews belted out. “It’s a bright, sunny, ready-to-garden day!”

For decades, this is where Detroit’s pregnant teens and young mothers have come to earn their diplomas. It’s the only school in the city that gives them space to study while their babies are cared for just down the hall.

For the 100 students at Catherine Ferguson, high school diplomas are the minimum expectation; college acceptance letters are the aim. It has a reputation for academic rigor and comprehensive study: Students might spend afternoons on internships, weeks traveling overseas and hours working small plots on the school’s farm.

On the walls, there are posters encouraging condom use, photos of newborns and beaming images of Catherine Ferguson graduates, all in their gowns, caps and tassels.

“Remember,” Andrews signs off her morning announcement, “smart is what you get, not what you are.”

Girls trickle outside, grumbling about the heat and mess of the farm, but intrigued by the seedlings of basil, arugula and cabbage. They fling handfuls of dirt at each other as they paw through a season of overgrowth. Over the years, the school’s abandoned playground evolved into a spread of apple trees, honeybees, chickens, goats and garden plots – creatures and greenery tended to by students and a pack of volunteers.

“You did not tell me there were going to be spiders in this dirt,” a student recoils, then leans in to study the egg sac one spider carried.

Another student cracks that a classmate – wearing oversized gloves, slicing through roots with the pointed end of a shovel – “looks like a man.”

“Don’t you ever say that,” the principal swoops in. “She’s a competent woman. Just because she’s good at something, she’s a man?”

A few minutes later, a rumble of voices emerges – a chant to a beat, too faraway to distinguish. This area is usually quiet; there’s a dental school, a Salvation Army center, a few old homes, empty lots scattered with bricks and glass.

As the voices get louder and clearer, the girls look up from the garden beds, distracted and confused by the people on the other side of the high chain-link fence – about a dozen protesters in red shirts carrying signs for the civil rights group By Any Means Necessary. It’s a demonstration prompted by CNN’s presence, the group’s organizers said.

The tinny yelp from a megaphone leads voices they know – current and former students – shouting from the sidewalk to their peers in the garden: “Equal education is our right.” They are protesting a new curriculum at the academy and want to see it return to a more traditional high school.

From state to state, school district to school district and even inside the walls of Catherine Ferguson, there’s no agreement on how best to educate teens who are pregnant and parenting.

See also: Rural America has a teenage pregnancy problem

Only 40% of teen moms finish high school; less than 2% finish college by age 30, according to national figures.

Teen birth rates have declined most years for the last two decades – dropping about 25% just from 2007 to 2011. But such girls still face challenges: punitive absence policies, a lack of child care and transportation options, and teachers and administrators who discourage them from attending school, according to a 2012 report by the National Women’s Law Center.

According to the center, no national database tracks what happens to pregnant teens: Where do they go to school? Do they graduate? What happens once they do?

Few states have laws about how to handle them, and districts might not even realize what their obligations are. This week, a U.S. Senate committee is debating an update to the country’s expansive education law – including, for the first time, a call for better data and school plans that address pregnant and parenting students. The proposal has a long way to go before passage, if that even happens.

There aren’t many schools like Catherine Ferguson in the United States, and several have shut down in recent years because of tight budgets and questionable quality. Some offer academically rigorous standards and services like child care, but others offer “no meaningful educational opportunities,” the National Women’s Law Center report said.