School of life

Nov 24, 2004 at 12:00 am

Detroit public school student Takeshia Gunn stumbles out of bed at 6 a.m., groggy because her son Day’ Jon kept her up until 2 in the morning. The 17-year-old gently wakes the boy still sleeping in her bed.

She gets a plastic bowl of warm water, lays the 1-year-old out on the bed and unclothes and cleans him, methodically wiping a soapy cloth over his cherubic body as he stares unconsciously at a high school economics book lying near his head. They’re quiet; family members sleep in all the rooms of the small northwest Detroit house.

Gunn moves efficiently because there’s no time to spare. Normally she wakes at 4 a.m. to feed and dress her baby and herself so she can catch a city bus to school in time for a 7:30 a.m. class. The 90-minute ride includes a 30-minute wait for a second bus that’ll take her to Detroit’s Catherine Ferguson Academy. But a month ago a man attacked her at the bus stop — he tried to pull her into his car while she was alone in the dark — but the bus driver pulled up just in time. Since then Gunn takes the bus only when she must.

“The only alternative is to drop out, and that’s not an option,” Gunn says. But today she has a ride. She feeds Day’ Jon grilled ham and pancakes, then administers his asthma breathing treatment and three liquid medicines to his great protest. Though a picture of health, Day’ Jon is recovering from pneumonia, a virus, asthma, bronchitis and a collapsed lung. She packs him a change of clothes, some diapers and the medicines, checking off the items on a mental list.

“OK, now I can get ready,” she mumbles, rubbing her eyes.

It’s the beginning of a typically long day for Gunn and her son. But for this teen mom, 15-hour days are apparently of no concern. Mondays and Wednesdays, Gunn takes a parenting and family literacy class after school until 5 p.m. for elective credit before catching a bus home with Day’ Jon. Tuesdays and Thursdays, she takes night classes until 6 p.m. After a full day of school and lugging her son and books and his baby bag to school and on and off buses, she’ll get home in time to feed him and do homework and get ready to rise at dawn again.

Just a year and nine months ago Gunn was a year behind in school, skipping class, playing around, making C’s and D’s at Cooley High. She got pregnant at age 15. Then she found out about Catherine Ferguson Academy — an alternative Detroit public school for teen moms that provides nursery service. Now Gunn is a top student making A’s and B’s, a member of student council and on the Honor Roll for grades and perfect attendance. When she graduates in June, she plans to attend Eastern Michigan University to become a nurse.

“I want to be a nurse because I know I’ll always have a job and won’t struggle financially, because there is a shortage of nurses,” Gunn says. “I have a child. I want him to be able to depend on me. I can’t leave him at home with my mom. And I can’t provide for him working at McDonald’s. You can’t make it out there working at a fast-food place.

“I have a child and I want him to have all the things that I didn’t have, all the things I missed out on, to celebrate Christmas and birthdays and special occasions. No child should grow up in this world with nothing to look forward to. I’ve got no choice but to get an education.”

Apparently Gunn has found just the place to achieve her goals — a little two-story school tucked away in inner-city Detroit.

Mom school rules

While Detroit public schools are among the most maligned anywhere, with dilapidated facilities and failing test scores and a reputation that repels many families, there are diamonds in the rough and students who will succeed despite the odds. Amid the turmoil, the Catherine Ferguson Academy — an “alternative” school in the district that offers middle- and high-school courses — has quietly made a national name for itself.

This year the school was named a Breakthrough High School by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. One of 12 schools nationally to win the distinction, Catherine Ferguson earned it based on the following criteria: At least 50 percent of the school is minority; 50 percent of the student body qualifies for free and reduced-price meals; and at least 90 percent of students graduate and are accepted to college.

The academy had no problem meeting the requirements — with 94 percent black students and 5 percent Hispanic, and more than 90 percent eligible for free or reduced lunches, every year Catherine Ferguson achieves a 90 percent graduation rate; 100 percent of those who graduate (85 last year) are accepted to two- or four-year colleges, most with financial aid, says the school’s principal, G. Asenath Andrews.

“Kids transform themselves here,” Andrews says. “We’re just a pot and kids jump in and turn themselves from lead into gold.”

Every year, enrollment is first come, first served for as many as 400 students and 200 babies. There is no academic requirement; most of the girls are in the process of dropping out when they enter. As many as 20 percent drop out every year, Andrews says. (The 90 percent graduation rate is based on students who make it to their senior year.)

Andrews says the difference at her school is personal attention to each student. While Detroit public schools average 35 students for every teacher, Catherine Ferguson has an 18 to 1 ratio. Each student is assigned to a homeroom teacher whom she stays with until she graduates. The homeroom teacher is responsible for looking after the student, the “first line” before issues head to the principal’s office. When the kids don’t show up or don’t do their homework, a teacher asks, “Why? Where are you? What’s going on?”

“What we know about schools that are successful is that kids feel involved,” Andrews says. “I couldn’t work in a school where the teachers didn’t care. If there’s a problem with a student, I’ll go to her house, to her neighborhood.”

Catherine Ferguson coaches every student on friendship, respect and loyalty as well as parenting skills. The school offers on-site services, including food stamps, an immunization clinic, dental services, and parenting/family literacy and counseling classes. Also, students can take a three-week summer school program at Queens College in Canada, as well as other off-site study programs. To graduate, students must do an internship in a professional setting.

The one-stop education and social-service center is a great boon to Fior Marmol, 19, a young runaway who had a baby at age 15.

“When I graduate in January, I’m going to go to Central Michigan University,” Marmol says. “I want to get a four-year law degree and learn two other languages. I already know English and Spanish. I want to go into the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency].

“I live at Alternatives for Girls and walk to school with my son. He’s four and goes to kindergarten across the street. He went here, to Catherine Ferguson, for three years. It helped him. It helped me that I could bring him to school. I lived on Joy Road by Greenfield; it took me two to three hours to get to school. I lived on my own. My house got burned down, by an ex of mine. Before that I got threats. I called the police and they told me to get a shotgun and that I could shoot him if he got on the property.

“I found out about Catherine Ferguson from other students that went here, girls that graduated. It was like a myth, that there’s a school for pregnant girls. It’s been a great school. The teachers here care more. At my other school I could leave whenever I wanted and nobody noticed.”

Seventy-five percent of Catherine Ferguson’s teachers have been there for 10 years or more. School counselors work with each student to come up with a graduation plan and help them apply to college and for grants and scholarships. The school has an aggressive mission statement: “To ensure that every student completes her high school education and is conferred with a State of Michigan endorsement. Each young woman must leave us with the skills necessary to be a competent, caring mother and be able to support herself and her family.”

At a night parenting class, students talk about their dreams while playing organized games and reading books to their kids.

Natisha Walker, 16, catches the bus to get herself and her daughter, Tanyla, to school. “I’m going to college. I got my head on straight. I know what I got to do.”

Crystal Gomez, 17, says she’s going to Henry Ford Community College to be a defense attorney. “I want to help people with a low income.”

“I’m going to Wayne State, pre-law,” Janel Norman, 16, says.

Aleah Buck got pregnant when she was 14. She was making F’s and D’s at Osborn High. She entered Catherine Ferguson last year when her son was 2 weeks old. Now she makes the honor roll and she’s graduating next year.

“If I hadn’t come here, I’d probably still be in the ninth grade,” she says. “Or I would have dropped out. Here, there’s nothing to do but focus. I hate the dress code. I have a lot to wear and I can’t wear it. And the 10-day rule, I hate that; even if you have an emergency you can’t miss more than 10 days. But here, the school is good. At Osborn they don’t sit down and talk to you. Here, they talk to you and help you work.

“I’ve already gotten four academic scholarships, and I’m going to get more. I want to go to Michigan State University and study medicine. I want to be a gynecologist or a pediatrician. I feel that all children should be healthy.

“My son made me a better person. I don’t regret him. I’d rather spend time with him when I get home at night than go out. I only regret that I didn’t come to this school in the first place.”

Teachers at the school say they judge success not only by how the teens are doing, but by the babies’ progress. Andrews says kids of teen parents start school two years behind on average; her nursing staff of 14 intends to change that.

The school is Detroit’s only site for the Early Head Start program, which concentrates on children under the age of 4 by making sure the babies, for instance, get talked to and read to so they have high word-recognition skills. “It’s one of the most exciting things I can even think about,” Andrews says. “I was thinking of retiring, but I want to stay until these babies get into kindergarten. We want to set them up for extraordinary school success.”

Some 15 percent of Catherine Ferguson students aren’t pregnant or mothers. “Girls sneak in. One girl borrowed another girl’s urine to show us she was pregnant. We’ve had girls bring in their friends’ babies,” Andrews says. Girls without babies must write a letter to district CEO Kenneth Burnley describing why they want to attend Catherine Ferguson, and then behave once they’re accepted. “They are guests,” Andrews says.

The school doesn’t excel on all levels.

“If you look at MEAP scores, they’re not going to look good,” Andrews says. “I think we get the students ready. If you talk to kids, I think we’d get an A. If you look at MEAP we wouldn’t even get a C. We are a good school; we are not a great school. If we had a great school we’d have to start producing the kinds of test scores that make us look great. It starts with, ‘Is she OK? Is she living in a safe place? Is she getting prenatal care?’ Then you get to, ‘Did she do her homework.’ Our kids come with so much stuff to worry about, we never worried about test scores. If you base anything on just one standard, it’s not a true indication of what’s going on.”

Andrews shares the sentiment of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who said in a recent speech that the city needs more single-sex schools. Kilpatrick talked of all-boys schools, while Andrews emphasizes the need for all-girls schools. And at Catherine Ferguson, there’s also a dress code.

“Women fight over two things: boys and clothes. We don’t have any boys over the age of 3, so we only had to deal with the clothes issue. We tried the boys thing once. We had three boys here. But girls give power away too readily, as do women. They were wonderful boys and their stock will never be that high. When they graduated, they held two of six elected leadership positions. You’re telling me these boys were better than 80 girls? We as women abdicate our power so easily. We haven’t had boys apply since then.”

Student Frederica Owens, 16, says, “It’s better here because all there is to do is work. There’s no boys, boys, boys.”


It wouldn’t be far-fetched to conclude that Andrews possesses magical powers of persuasion. While Detroit public schools are bleeding students and dollars, prompting the recent announcement that the district will close 40 schools and cut 4,000 jobs to shore up a $200 million two-year deficit, Catherine Ferguson, somehow, every year, obtains about double the funding per student of the average Detroit public school. Andrews is tight-lipped about her budget and how she makes it work, except to say that the school is district-funded and gets dollars for special-needs students.

Andrews is a Fulbright Scholar who grew up on Eight Mile Road when it was dotted with farms. She was one of 40 first cousins who had, Andrews says, an idyllic childhood running and playing and eating together at their grandparents’ and parents’ houses. When babies were born, women banded together to cook and clean and to help care for them and sing and pray. “It was a community,” Andrews says. “Now, it’s acceptable for women to say, ‘I don’t get along with women.’”

A ’70s feminist, Andrews adopted the mantra that you must live what you believe, not just profess it. “I think that’s why I’m at this school,” she says.

After getting her master’s at Wayne State University, studying for a doctorate at the University of Michigan, and working as a teacher in Detroit schools, Andrews came to the Catherine Ferguson Academy in 1985. The school is named after a famed New York City freed slave who, though illiterate, dedicated her life to educating the city’s impoverished people in the early 1800s.

Andrews has shepherded the school’s growth since it started in the Salvation Army with a couple of desks and a playpen.

How did Andrews accomplish the academy’s growth and success?

She bakes.

“Making peach cobbler works, and inviting people to lunch,” Andrews says. “People aren’t CEOs first or directors first. They’re people first. We send candy when we send requests downtown. We put plants in mugs. We make honey and put a label on there saying the honey was made by female workers.

“You have to do this kind of stuff to stay in the game. And it’s a seductive place. The cycle is stopped here. Women don’t want their babies to struggle as hard as they have.”

A day in Camp Hope

At 8:30 a.m., science teacher Paul Weertz is out in the parking lot chasing chickens into the coop. A beautiful red barn built by the students flanks the academy’s small farm, home to several goats, a huge sheep, rabbits, a pony, a beehive, two horses, ducks and at least a dozen hens and roosters.

Minutes later Weertz is dragging a sheep by its leg as the animal jerks into the air. Still holding the sheep, Weertz straddles a goat, calling one of his students into the wrestling match to get the animals back into their pens. The girls are tending to morning chores.

The pony is devouring the horse’s food and two students are trying to lure him away with the hay he’s supposed to eat. Others speak while working:

“Where’s the space heater for the chicken coop? How can we collect eggs if we don’t find that heater?”

“I’m not getting near that sheep. He’s too aggressive.”

“Damn this goat is bursting,” says another, squirting foamy white milk into two big metal bowls.

Weertz coordinates a fairly productive goat milk, egg and honey farm, as well as a fruit, vegetable and flower garden (with one plot for each student in the program) and a small but varied orchard that teaches teen moms and their young children about the cycle of life, about taking care of animals and growing their own food, about health, and, sometimes, about death and guts, when Weertz slaughters one of the animals for the kids to dissect and study.

Inside the academy it looks more like a school than the idyllic farm-in-the-city outside. Lockers are painted blue and green and the walls are lined with inspirational art, messages, paintings and pictures of iconic black women. The halls reverberate with the sound of wailing and screaming. Dozens of babies — from infants to 3-year-olds — are hollering for their mamas, who are dropping them off to go to class.

Upstairs, a teacher in first period “mastery” class instructs her students. “A lot of time our water sits in the pipes and gets contaminated with lead. We need to let the water run before we let our children drink it. We need to dust and mop areas that could be contaminated with dust. If your baby has high lead levels, have your child eat more fruits and vegetables to flush out the toxin. What does lead cause? Learning disabilities, anemia …”

Down the hall, girls are getting ready for dance class while music plays; a goat stands outside the window looking in.

It’s just a normal day in the Catherine Ferguson Academy.

There’s something very old-fashioned about the school, plopped down at the junction of Lawton and Selden in a very poor area of Detroit off the Jeffries freeway on the city’s near West Side.

Outside of the wailing rooms, several “grandmothers” — part-time workers from Catholic Social Services — watch over big red buggies filled with tiny people. One of the grandmothers grimaces at the students gossiping on the stairwell.

“They should appreciate it,” Gussie Hendrick says. “I’m a senior citizen. This is a good school. Some of them appreciate it, and there’s a bunch that don’t. They should go to class because they have the help they need. But who is me to say?

“They need to wake up and smell the coffee. In my day coming up, this wouldn’t happen. If you had a baby at 17, 18, you were considered grown. I was 15 when I had my baby and they didn’t allow me to go to any school. But that was a different time.”

“This is life for me,” Beatrice Humphrey Abrams, 95, says. “It’s something for me to hold onto. I look forward to coming and talking to the babies. I think what’s wrong with old people is we give up too quick and have nothing to look forward to. Just sitting in the living room and watching TV, that’s not living.

“I keep busy and don’t feel sorry for myself. I get my exercise and I look forward to seeing the babies. I come from a large family of nine boys and five girls. It’s a little lonely being the last one left, but I’ve always kept busy.

“My first job was working for a private family in Bloomfield Hills. The man was sick. His wife, you know how wealthy people are, she was always going to things and playing cards. He’d give me $5 a day to take him to the doctor because his wife was too busy. That’s money, you know. Our family, as poor people we had a happy life. We always looked forward to Christmas. We’d go to bed early and take our socks off and clean the whole house so Santa wouldn’t trip on anything. Sometimes I don’t know if kids know what fun is anymore.”

Down the hall, Andrews’ office is alive with activity.

Two teachers walk in to report they still haven’t found a girl who’s been skipping school, and they can’t reach her mother. Andrews tells them to keep trying; another house visit might be in order. Andrews picks up the phone, saying out of the side of her mouth, “She’s 14, a hard nut. She won’t go to class. She’s working through a lot of issues. If we don’t get this girl some help now, we might not be able to at all.”

One task is barely completed before the sound of “Ms. Andrews! Ms. Andrews!” is heard. A steady stream of students and teachers ask the principal for this or that, to get a slip signed or to share a word. Teachers come in joking and laughing with Andrews, who can’t possibly get along this well with everyone. And, in fact, many students grouse under their breath that they aren’t too fond of Ms. Andrews. They complain she’s mean, too strict.

A toddler runs in with her young mother at her heels. The baby goes straight for a grapefruit sitting on Andrews’s desk. Amid the chaos, the principal’s imposing figure is animated even when she’s commanding submission; her eyes are playful, her face ringed with elegant large braids.

Andrews puts the toddler in her lap and peels the grapefruit; the child voraciously digs her mouth into the fruit as soon as it’s exposed.

“Who is this child? Charlene, did you feed this baby today?” Andrews says. The girl puckers her face and devours the bitter fruit. “What crazy baby is this?” Andrews says, tears of laughter streaming from the sides of her eyes.

As students and teachers continue their litany of petitions, Andrews conducts business while entertaining the child.

A girl walks into the office.

“Ms. Andrews, I’m not going to graduate because all the classes I need are in final hour,” the girl says.

“You aren’t graduating anyway,” Andrews says. “Didn’t you get my letter? We made a deal, and you walk away from that deal and now you want to complain that you aren’t going to graduate? You know what you need to do.”

“She’s going to have to take summer school,” Andrews says when the girl leaves the office.

Another girl comes in to say that she’s had a second child and has been discharged from the Marines just in time to escape service in Iraq.

“What’s wrong, didn’t we teach you how babies were made?” Andrews says.

“That’s how I got out of the Marine Corps,” the girl says, adding that she’s going to apply to nursing school.

“You can get that same training free from the city,” Andrews says. “Don’t sign anything until we see it.”

A teacher walks in, saying, “I want to talk about Marlene coming in late to homeroom and then throwing a tantrum. Well, I’ll go talk to her.”

The toddler sitting in Andrews’ lap gets up and starts running around her desk, grabbing wildly for a candy jar. As her mother comes in to remove the candy from her little hand, the baby starts throwing a fit. “Walk away, walk away,” Andrews says. “She’s invisible.”

It works. The girl stops crying.

“It’s a mental hospital in here, not really a school,” Andrews says. “Teenagers are just like real, real old people. They’re slow. They want to do things their own way. They’re egocentric and temperamental.”

She heads to a parent-teacher conference. As she walks through the hall she grabs the arm of a girl in sweatpants. “What are you doing out of class?” Andrews barks.

“My cramps are so bad they feel like contractions,” the girl says.

“So every time you have a period you’re going to go home? I’m not electing you president. I’m so disappointed, so disappointed.

“I thought you would make a great president.”

Teen births down
The numbers are still high, but slipping.

Lisa M. Collins is a staff writer for Metro Times. Send comments to