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Did Detroit’s school for teen moms discriminate against them?

With a 90 percent graduation rate, Catherine Ferguson Academy was nationally acclaimed; now it gathers dust

The Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women sits frozen in time, rooms of cribs gathering dust. Before it shut its doors this summer, the school, founded in 1986, educated generations of Detroit's pregnant girls and teen moms, the vast majority of whom graduated and went on to college. Catherine Ferguson's reputation was so stellar, girls were known to borrow friends' babies to sneak in.

For Arkela Beaty, it was a second home.

Arkela Beaty, raised by a teen mother herself, is 19 with three children.
Arkela Beaty

Beaty is the mother of three: 5-year-old Isis, 3-year-old Imani and baby Imanuel. The father of her oldest is dead, and the father of her second is incarcerated. Beaty is 19 years old; she first got pregnant at 13.

"I was kind of ashamed," she said about when she learned of the first pregnancy. "My family, they were disappointed, and they told me that they weren't going to help me. So I thought I was going to have to drop out of middle school."

That would make her a common statistic. Half of teens who get pregnant don't earn a high school diploma by age 22. Pregnancy is the No. 1 reason girls drop out.

But Beaty persevered through eighth grade and was referred to Catherine Ferguson, then the city's only high school for pregnant and parenting students. Catherine Ferguson didn't expect her or anyone else to drop out; it expected her to go to college. She was so committed that she took three buses every morning to get there, with her kids in tow.

But now Beaty, along with more than a dozen other students and parents, is suing the school — the one place that she said kept her from feeling like an "outcast" — for violating her civil rights. 

‘Your brain didn’t change’

Catherine Ferguson's mission was to provide a good public education to parents and their kids, and it did so for close to three decades. Unlike a traditional high school, Catherine Ferguson offered on-site day care and early elementary education. In return, it had a daily attendance rate of 97 percent. Ninety percent of students graduated.

"When I was hired in here, it was made very clear to me that we offered the full high school curriculum," said Nicole Conaway, who taught at the school for six years. "The line here was, your brain didn't change when you got pregnant."

But in 2011 the emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools (DPS) slated a number of schools for closure as a cost-saving measure, including Catherine Ferguson. At the time, DPS defended the move, saying the school's students could enroll in the city's traditional high schools, which educated other teen moms. But facing protests and sit-ins by angry students and teachers, the district drew up a compromise: It would reopen Catherine Ferguson as a private, for-profit charter school. Students and teachers rejoiced that the school had been saved. 

At Catherine Ferguson, children of teen mothers were welcome from 2 weeks old until kindergarten age.
Grown in Detroit

School management was handed over to the charter network Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy, which runs several alternative, disciplinary academies in Detroit geared towards students who had behaviorial issues in mainstream schools. It instituted a new, nontraditional curriculum focused on independent projects and work-oriented skills.

According to Joyce Schon, a Detroit attorney who helped file the lawsuit against the school, the new setup was "a disaster." 

"They ended up telling teachers not to teach. They renamed the teachers advisers," she said. "[The students] were told to find their own externships … Who wants a high school student running around their office? And they were supposed to be doing that two days a week, and they had to have transportation to get their kids to the school for child care and then find their own transportation to the nonexistent externship and back to the school to pick up their kids at the end of the school day."

Under the new rules, Conaway said, she was allowed to teach only two days a week.

Like many of her peers, Beaty dropped out. And within two years, the school's enrollment plummeted from nearly 300 students to less than 100. Citing shifting demographics, the school board declared in a statement that the wilting student body made it "fiscally impossible to continue to operate." In June the former model school was shut down.

"Look, all these resources sitting in this boarded-up building," said Conaway, peering through a window into her old classroom. "It's wrong. It's just wrong."

Who’s to blame?

The former students and parents who filed the lawsuit against the school allege that teachers were not allowed to teach the state-mandated curriculum and failed to employ certified teachers in key subjects. They say that as a charter school, Catherine Ferguson violated the federal civil rights law Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education, including discrimination against students who are pregnant or parenting.

"America Tonight" requested comment from Wayne RESA, the public agency that authorized the charter school, but received no response. 

The students accuse Catherine Ferguson, under its new management, of giving them an inferior education, something that pregnant and parenting teens in mainstream schools across the country have long struggled with, advocates say. According to 2012 report by the National Women's Law Center, sometimes teachers and administrators won't excuse pregnancy-related absences or give students the opportunity to make up work and may discourage pregnant girls from going to school at all — even though all that is illegal under Title IX. 

‘We can’t blame young women who have children early and then blame then again because they don't finish their education and make something of themselves when we don’t give them the support they need.’

Lara Kaufmann

senior counsel, National Women’s Law Center

Lara Kaufmann, senior counsel and director for education policy at the National Women's Law Center, said, "I get calls every week from students, from parents, at the high school level, at the college level and even at the graduate school level who really want to succeed and know that education's the ticket to the future for them but who are pushed away by their schools."

She added that schools often punish pregnant and parenting students for missing school or falling behind, thinking that if they don't do so, everyone would want to have children while in school.

A mural on Catherine Ferguson’s barn, which was part of a working farm built by students.
America Tonight

"That's just ludicrous," she said. "We can't blame young women who have children early and then blame then again because they don't finish their education and make something of themselves when we don't give them the support they need."

"America Tonight" reached out to DPS for more explanation of its decision to shutter the school in the first place, but the district twice declined, saying Catherine Ferguson was no longer one of its schools. DPS has chartered a new school for pregnant and parenting teens, Pathways Academy, which opened last week. 

Beaty isn't in attendance. She already earned her GED and is about to start a new job. She's determined to break the cycle of poverty for her family and says her brief time at Catherine Ferguson gave her the confidence to do it.

"They need to just stop looking down on us," she said. "Because that just makes us want to give up."

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