This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
A film crew embedded at the Catherine Ferguson Academy on the Detroit’s west side captured a garden in bloom in the middle of the city—bees making honey, goats making milk, home-grown apples being pressed into cider, and small children learning to thrive in nature.
But mostly what’s caught blossoming in a documentary called Grown in Detroit, by Dutch filmmakers Mascha and Manfred Poppenk, are the teenage moms enrolled at the school.
The roughly 300 girls at the Detroit public school studied math and history while learning to care for crops, horses, their children, and themselves—sometimes in integrated lessons in which a science class on mammals and mammary glands led to milking the school’s goats, which led to conversations about breastfeeding, which led to a young mom nursing her baby instead of using a bottle.
“You are special in this place,” the school’s principal, Aseenath Andrews, is heard telling her students during an assembly in one of the documentary’s opening scenes. “If you’re not special any place else, you are special here.”
That was in 2009.
Two years later, the expensive-to-run school was dumped by a school district desperate to cut costs. It briefly survived as a charter school but was so altered by the changes, it never fully recovered. It closed its doors last year.
The school was among dozens of dedicated programs for pregnant and parenting teens that have been shut down in recent years as teen pregnancy rates have plunged and cash-strapped cities and states have looked for ways to save money.
But while some of the shuttered programs were academically inferior to typical schools or served largely to keep pregnant girls away from the general population, Catherine Ferguson found a way to mix strong academics with robust student supports to send most of its students to college.
While most teen moms drop out of high school—a third won’t earn a diploma or GED before their 22nd birthday—Catherine Ferguson boasted a 90 percent graduation rate.
The students succeed because “I expect it,” Andrews told author Mark Binelli for his book Detroit City Is the Place to Be.
Binelli was one of a flood of reporters who profiled the school for its impressive stats and for the unusual farm that flourished in its schoolyard.
Catherine Ferguson also made the pages of Oprah’s O magazine and appeared on MSNBC.