Catherine Ferguson Academy

DETROIT (WOMENSENEWS)–Asenath Andrews is getting phone calls from students. But that’s not unusual for the first weeks of the school year. In fact, the principal of Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit expects it.

"I give my home phone and cell numbers out every year at our orientation assembly," said Andrews, a Detroit native. "New students don’t always believe it. I had three girls call me today just to see if it was real."

One of the few schools in the nation for pregnant and parenting teens and their children–Andrews knows of only three other accredited schools of this kind in the United States–Catherine Ferguson can brag about a 90-percent graduation rate and 100-percent college acceptance rate for those that do earn their diplomas. The school stands out in a struggling Detroit public school system that has 53 schools slated for closure by next summer.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, based in Washington, D.C., estimates that one-third of teen mothers eventually complete high school, and only 1.5 percent receives a college degree by her 30th birthday. The group also says that nearly 80 percent of teen mothers eventually receive government-subsidized child support–referred to colloquially as welfare–most within five years of giving birth.

In 2004, Catherine Ferguson was one of only eight schools to be named a Breakthrough High School by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The honor recognizes schools that are more than 50-percent students of color, more than 50-percent students who qualify for free and reduced-meal prices, and with a 90-percent or better rate of graduation and college acceptance.

The 20-year-old first-come, first-serve program can host up to 400 students and 200 children. Students are eligible for enrollment from the time they become pregnant to the time they graduate, offering a consistency that Andrews says is vital if the young women are going to beat the daunting drop-out statistics for teen mothers.

Education Tailored for Mothers

Catherine Ferguson has implemented a number of initiatives unavailable at other P-schools or mainstream schools.

For newborns, babies and toddlers there is campus child care and early education. For children who reach age 4 before their mothers graduate, the school partners with a nearby nursery so they can be among children their own age.

Child care staff extends hours for those who take extra evening classes at Wayne County Community College, located less than a mile a way from Catherine Ferguson Academy.

Women Infants and Children, a federal food program for low-income "nutritionally at risk" people, has a site in the school offering health information and counseling along with coupons for supplemental foods.

The school maintains a nursing and midwifery clinic that provides pre- and post-natal care to students.

Catherine Ferguson also operates on a quarterly system over nine months, rather than the traditional two-semester calendar so that students with high absences due to pregnancy complications don’t risk losing credit for half the academic year and slipping too far behind their peers.

It has a four-day schedule with Fridays set aside for appointments or making up absences.

Parenting Education Required

Parenting education is a required staple of every student’s schedule and features a weekly meeting between the mothers and their children’s teachers.

In a design Andrews calls "spiraling up," students spend one week each quarter engaging in topics that affect both the mother and her child, such as discipline; pre-literacy education for their children; and management of time, anger and money. The week on anger management in the first quarter asks, "What is anger, and how does it affect you?" The student will return to anger management in the second quarter to question how her anger affects her child.

Each student is required to choose at least one career to explore in 10-week internships outside the school.

"The placements are amazing," Andrews said. "Girls who want to do O.R. nursing actually go into an operating room. For a while, we had a big group into undertaking, and now we have a CSI crew interested in forensics; those placements are harder to find."

And then there’s the farm.

The agri-science program has grown from a small garden to an urban farm right outside the school’s building. It comes complete with vegetables, chickens, sheep, bees, worms, ducks, goats, turkeys, rabbits and horses, and is one of the most popular sites on urban agriculture tours through Detroit. Catherine Ferguson’s schoolyard boasts a barn that students built.

While students dig in the dirt and deepen their knowledge of life cycles, Andrews says they also bond with their children.

"We went apple picking," Andrews said. "And the next day we made pie and the next day we made sauce and the next day we made jelly. There’s lots and lots to be learned from that. And you hope the mom will continue to experience that with their kid. They can’t do that if they don’t have that experience of their own."

Connecticut’s Model P-School

Polly T. McCabe Center in New Haven, Conn., is another of the rare success stories in public school programming for pregnant teens.

While Catherine Ferguson is a diploma-granting public school, Polly McCabe is a transitional program housed within New Haven Public Schools serving 40 to 50 students at a time in 7th through 12th grades.

Students spend about two months at Polly McCabe and then re-enter traditional school. It is the most common program template in school districts that acknowledge the needs of pregnant and parenting teens.

With only a short time at Polly McCabe high absences related to pregnancy and consistent academic progress is a challenge for students.

Nonetheless, the seven seniors enrolled at Polly McCabe all graduated in 2006. Eighty-six percent of its graduates in 2005 went on to two- or four-year colleges beating the state average by 7 percentage points, according to the most recent statistics available from the Connecticut Department of Education.

The center offers a child care program supervised by a pediatric nurse and early childhood specialist. This year’s students are scheduled for a wellness-stress management class after lunch during the fifth period, the time of day when the center knows students are most likely to be in attendance.

At Polly McCabe, the teacher-student ratio is 1-to-8; the Connecticut average is 1-to-16, according to Public School Review.

Personal attention and active consideration of the whole student–recognizing her as a student, a mother and a teen–is key to Polly McCabe’s success, according to researchers from Yale University and the University of Virginia.

Their 2003 report to the Washington-based American Psychological Association found that students "appeared to identify with the staff and to consider new life options based on an assumption that they should finish high school. Staff availability to help solve practical problems that might interfere with their ability to remain in school is also important."

Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Detroit. She maintains the literary and social justice Web site, Isak (

For more information:

Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World:

Teenwire: Sexuality and Relationship information from Planned Parenthood:

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