Fighting School Closures in Detroit

The award-winning Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit, which educates young and expectant mothers as well as their children, boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate in a district where only two out of three students can expect to graduate at all. Not only does it offer free child-care services but the school, in the middle of the city, is even equipped with a full-scale farm. The one-of-a-kind institution was the subject of an award-winning documentary, which debuted last year. It has also been lauded as a success story by Oprah and Rachel Maddow.

But these accolades, honors, and successes aren't enough to keep the school off a closure list released by Robert Bobb, the emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools. And with the powers granted to him to revive the ailing school district, he might just have his way.

By the end of June, eight public schools in Detroit will close. Another 18 will face hearings before Bobb. If they can make a case for their programs, they will remain open as they are, but if not, charter operators will be allowed to make bids on the school buildings -- and be free to implement their own programs. Students, teachers, and administrators from Catherine Ferguson Academy were originally scheduled to make their appeal to Bobb today. (After publication, the hearing was rescheduled and a new date has not been set.) They'll have 20 minutes to describe and defend the institution many have called completely life-changing.

Bobb's authority over the city's system is one that many critics describe as "financial martial law." After having served as city manager of Richmond, Virginia, Santa Ana, California, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, Bobb was appointed in March 2009 by then-Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, and charged with a single mission: to cut the $327 million deficit the education system in Detroit, one of the country's most impoverished cities, has run over the years and put it on sound financial footing. Although his tenure was extended by recently elected Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, and his powers have been redoubled through recent legislation, Bobb has so far only increased the debt the schools face by nearly $100 million.

Bobb's tactics have been contentious, to say the least. He recently proposed the closure of half of all schools in Detroit, with a consolidation scheme that would allow for up to 60 students in a classroom. The proposal, titled the Renaissance 2012 Plan, has since been scaled back, but schools like Catherine Ferguson Academy remain endangered. Last month, all 5,466 Detroit public school teachers received layoff notices.

Critics, including activists associated with the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary, the civil-rights group that has been deeply critical of emergency management of the schools, have pointed out that the majority of schools Bobb threatens to close are institutions that serve special-needs students.

Southeastern Michigan's only school for the deaf is on the list, as are schools that educate students with severe autism and one that offers a last chance at graduation to students who have been expelled from other area high schools. With just over 300 currently enrolled from its early education program through 12th grade, Catherine Ferguson Academy is on the list for the second year in a row, even though it faced a similar hearing last year and won.

Students at CFA have vowed not to give up without a fight this time, either.

Supported by hundreds of community members, some of its current and former students, their children, and a teacher staged a sit-in at the school during their spring break last month. Although they had prepared to peaceably occupy the nearly century-old building for the entire week, the group was forcibly removed by Detroit police and charged for trespassing after just a few hours.

Tiffini Baldwin, a 2010 graduate of CFA was among those arrested. She brought her daughter along with her to the sit-in. The three-year-old watched in confusion as her mother was handcuffed by Detroit police. "The teachers at Catherine Ferguson didn't just teach us social studies and math; they also taught us life lessons," Baldwin says. "We would go to our children's classes and learn about potty training and how to be a smart shopper and spend valuable time with our kids."

Now a freshmen studying physical therapy at a local college, Baldwin credits much of her success to CFA and says there was no doubt in her mind that she would protest the school's closure.

Although CFA students sell produce from their farm at local markets, receive federal funding for serving an at-risk population, and rely on volunteers, theirs is a costly operation. Still, about Bobb's proposal Baldwin says, "It puts profit over something that is priceless."

Nicole Conaway, a science teacher who protested alongside her students, agrees. "[Bobb and his staff] are trying to privatize the school system completely. For our school in particular, a charter company might like the property, but there is no way it will continue the program that we have at Catherine Ferguson," she says.

Conaway also notes that tours were given to charter operators during the spring break. Although she and her students had been removed from the school by the time that these were held, their handmade signs promoting public education and democratic oversight remained plastered in windows and on walls.

Bobb also plans to dismantle the public school board, the best advocates for schools like CFA. Elena Herrada, an appointed member of the Detroit Public School Board will be running for her seat in the fall regardless. She thinks that Bobb plans to convert the entire district into independent chartered institutions, even though charter schools have proved no better than public ones in Detroit.

To her, the reason so many specialized schools are slated for closure is simple: "The charters don't want special education, bilingual education, or any other specialty programs that can't command much money or bring in uncertified teachers." She feels such a "market model" approach to education in Detroit will be devastating not only for the city's young people but for local communities that have remained relatively stable around public schools. Boarding the schools up and forcing families to relocate could have dire consequences on already hard-pressed neighborhoods.

Much of the city's population has already left because of the increasingly abysmal prospects they faced in the city. The 2010 census revealed that Michigan is the only state to have lost population in recent history, and Detroit has been one of its hardest-hit areas -- a trend that could only worsen as neighborhood schools close and area young people become underserved by educational opportunities. Since 2005, 130 Detroit schools have closed, and the city has lost more than half of its student population. About 141 remain, educating over 74,000 students.

The problem for the remaining area schools that will present their cases to Bobb today is that a single individual has been given such dramatic control over their futures. It's especially difficult for the students of Catherine Feruson, who aren't just looking out for their own futures but for those of their young families and their neighborhoods as well.

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