In the heart of Detroit, Mich., a red barn towers over a playground with a hoop house close by. Chickens, goats, rabbits and a horse go about their daily business as high school girls round the corner for math and English class. Here, teenage mothers harvest lettuce and broccoli alongside their children and care for city livestock.
This scene is the site of the Catherine Ferguson Academy—a school and urban farm rolled into one—that is one of only four accredited schools in the United States for pregnant and parenting teenagers and their children.
When the school started in the 1960s, it was housed in a Salvation Army building as a short-term education center for teen mothers. It has since transformed into a school that holds up to 400 teen mothers. Ninety-nine percent of its students graduate and 90 percent of them attend a two- or four-year college.
The Catherine Ferguson Academy operates according to standards set by the state of Michigan, with the urban farm serving as a learning tool.
“The farm is really there to support and give kids some hands-on opportunities to understand some of that content and to learn some of the reasoning skills,” says the school’s principal, Asenath Andrews. “Farming is pretty amazing in that it requires so much science and reasoning and thinking and even writing.”
The farm hosts 172 garden plots. Each homeroom at the school is required to keep a 4- by 8-foot garden plot, where they research what crops to grow and when to harvest. In the fall, the students use the food they’ve grown to host a “Plant a Feast” celebration. Individual students are also welcome to keep their own garden plot.
Teachers use the urban farm to teach lessons such as animal gestation, water cleanliness, the energy input and output of goats, starting and germinating seeds, and nutrition for mothers and babies.
“It’s interesting how it gives kids a different view of the teachers,” Andrews says. While some teachers may be great with calculus, they may not be so confident on the farm, allowing them to learn alongside students.
The Catherine Ferguson Academy was honored as a Breakthrough High School by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. It also was featured in the 2009 documentary Grown in Detroit.
To meet Principal Asenath Andrews and learn more about the Catherine Ferguson Academy’s urban farm, watch the video above.