Catherine Ferguson Academy, a Detroit public school that has educated young and expectant mothers since 1988 and won numerous accolades and honors along the way, will not reopen this fall. With a seemingly insurmountable district-wide debt of $327 million, state-appointed financial managers proposed desperate measures to return the city’s public school system to sound financial footing. In February, the school system’s emergency manager announced that half of all the public schools would be closed, and in April, all 5,446 DPS teachers received pink slips to signal that their contracts could be terminated prior to the 2011-2012 school year. While the proposed closures and layoffs have since been scaled back, the future remains bleak.
Eight of 18 schools in Detroit that were slated for closure face the same fate as Catherine Ferguson. A bid to run a charter school at the site was not enough to maintain the Academy and the other eight schools – even though charters, as private organizations, would have maintained full discretion to alter the schools’ programs and reach out to a broader population of students.
Funding has been the main issue cited for the closures, especially for Catherine Ferguson, because the school provides free child care and maintains a low teacher-student ratio. Both are said to be too costly for the system to maintain, despite the additional funding the school receives to educate an at-risk population.
Roy Roberts, a former General Motors vice president, who took over as emergency manager of the city’s school system from Robert Bobb in May, said the district's financial problems were “larger than I thought they were.” Bobb had only managed to increase Detroit schools’ debt by almost $100 million during his tenure. Whether Roberts' plan to close schools will prove sufficient to close this financial void remains to be seen.
For now, the principal of Catherine Ferguson, G. Asenith Andrews, wonders whether it will leave another void in the system: the education gap for teen mothers who face nearly impossible odds to complete high school even in the best of conditions. She said some of her students take two or three public buses from across the city to come to school every morning. The young women say that if their neighborhood schools could adequately meet their needs, they would go to the schools easiest for them to access, but they choose Catherine Ferguson instead.
Andrews said, “I’m just so distraught, so disappointed, so frightened. How do you close a school that’s been on national TV, that has an international following?” Apparently, the bottom line is more important than acclaim and more important than a school that takes in students who risk becoming dropouts anywhere else.