Teen Moms in Detroit: Fighting to Save the School that Saved Them

3 minute read

The Catherine Ferguson Academy, part urban farm, part college prep, has horses grazing along the former running track, hay growing in empty lots and an apple orchard with hens running through it, all in the heart of burned-out Detroit. In a city that has a graduation rate of 62%, the academy, part of the Detroit Public Schools system, grants diplomas to 95% of their students—all pregnant teens or young mothers—and every one of them has a college acceptance letter in her back pocket.

But even a success story, and the subject of a prize-winning documentary Grown in Detroit, has no guarantee of survival in a district that is $327 million in the hole. Earlier this month, the Michigan governor named Roy Roberts, a former GM executive, emergency manager of the schools. Roberts is tasked with radically restructuring schools and significantly reducing operating costs. Over 2,000 employees may lose their jobs, and at least 45 schools—the academy among them—may be closed.

The 307 students aren’t going quietly. Yesterday, 125 teens and their supporters marched four miles from the school to Roberts’ office and gave speeches, trying to rally the spectators. A school sit-in they organized over spring break may have only lasted a few hours—cops used a master key to enter that evening—but eight students were arrested, causing a mini-firestorm. “We plan to have more marches, rallies and possibly more occupations,” says science teacher Nicole Conaway, “until our demands are met.”

Corine Vermeulen, a Dutch photographer who moved to Detroit in 2006, has been following the school—which she calls visionary for using gardening to teach life skills—since she first learned about it from a teacher. Vermeulen was impressed by the students tenaciousness, and having photographed Robert Bobb, the city’s previous emergency manager, for TIME last year. She gathered eight students at her nearby studio after the aborted sit-in for a series of portraits. “They’re raising their voices,” said the photographer, “and they’re not going to stop.”

Vermeulen hopes her portfolio brings attention to the students plight and puts pressure on the city to keep the doors open. “How can you rebuild a city if there’s no chance of an education?” says Vermeulen. The city counters they are in the middle of vetting all the schools on the list for possible closure, but that “no decisions have been made at this point, ” says Steven Wasko, the districts spokesman. “This school, like others on the list, is working to serve specialized or alternative student needs, but the costs per student far exceed available resources.”

Still, in a city known for its resilience, the students aren’t waving a white flag yet. “Its not looking too good,” says Vermeulen who had just returned from the demonstration, “but you’ve got to have hope.”

—Deirdre van Dyk. Produced by Natalie Matutschovsky.

Previously, Corine Vermeulen has photographed students from Ann Arbor Elementary School and Cody High School’s for TIME. She has spent the past decade producing Your Town Tomorrow, an ongoing series exploring topographies and urban life in Detroit.

Breanna, 17; Perrion, 1. "Before I got pregnant I was depressed and felt dumb. I wasn’t learning much at my other school. But when I found out I was pregnant my mom, also a Catherine Ferguson Academy graduate, told me I’m going to CFA and I’m going to be a great success. Ever since I’ve enrolled I have been learning so much, I’m having fun taking care of my child and I actually like going to school. What a miracle." Corine Vermeulen
Dalana, 17; Danyla, 3. "CFA is not just a school, it’s a second home to me and my daughter. It’s the place where we can laugh, cry, grow, learn and enjoy life. If the academy closes most of the girls would be dropouts, with no path and no one to look up to. Those girls will be looking for a handout from the state like food stamps and Section 8." Corine Vermeulen
Tiffini, 18; Nicole, 3. "I’m in college now, studying physical therapy. Without the academy I would still be in high school, a year, or maybe a little more, behind. CFA is more than a high school, it’s my family, my second home. The staff are genuine, encouraging, and truly have the student’s best interest at heart. If the academy closed, it would mean my family died. I would be heart broken." Corine Vermeulen
Ashley, 17; Bre’Anna, 2. "I would not be the woman, or mother, that I am today without the Catherine Ferguson Academy. They mean the world to me and my daughter, and they literally saved my life. If the school closes, so many girls will be forced to drop out and their kids certainly won’t have the great quality mother that the academy produces." Corine Vermeulen
Catherine, 19; Da’Mire, 2. "This school means so much to me. It helped me get through. They taught me about agriculture, planting crops, raising animals. They taught me life skills and healthy habits for me and my son. Now look what happened: my son knows more than any average two-year-old, and I am now a senior student."Corine Vermeulen
Tatyana, 15; Tamiya, 5 months. "The academy has inspired me to finish high school, and see that having a baby is not the biggest problem in the world. They told me that as a teen mother, I owe it to myself, and my baby, to be educated so we can move further in life. If they close, I believe that 50% of the girls would drop out. And that’s the last thing we want… who wants their children to see that?" Corine Vermeulen
Latamra, 18; Devin, 11 months. "I was 15 when I got pregnant and stopped going to school. It messed up all my grades. The academy got me back on track to graduate on time, which I did last year. I’m worried about the girls behind me, they are getting pregnant younger and younger. There’s one now that’s only eleven years old. Just imagine what will happen to her if she would have to go to a regular school." Corine Vermeulen
Angelique, 17. "Because of CFA I can graduate early and I have a babysitter while I’m learning. If the school closes some of the girls might drop out because they don’t have baby sitters. CFA is the only school for pregnant girls… you can’t beat that." Corine Vermeulen

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