Friends and family celebrate with Catherine Ferguson Academy students after their graduation in July 2012. (Jim Griffioen / Special to Detroit News)
Detroit — Nearly two years after Detroit Public Schools cut ties with Catherine Ferguson Academy, the charter school for pregnant students and teen mothers is experiencing some challenges.
Enrollment is down and some educators and students are frustrated with a new learning model that has been implemented.
Recent complaints from students and teachers prompted the board for Wayne RESA — a regional agency that provides services to Wayne County school districts — to order its superintendent to look into conditions at the school.
The Detroit Board of Education, which has no authority over the charter school, is holding a public hearing at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Detroit Public Library on conditions at all schools across Detroit, including Catherine Ferguson.
The school gained national attention for its unique programs, which included a working farm. It served 249 mothers and 120 children younger than 6 in 2011, its last year as a DPS school.
It's now down to between 50 and 100 students and is operated by the Blanche Kelso Bruce Strict Discipline Academy, which provides educational services to non-mainstream students.
A new curriculum called "The Big Picture" has replaced the typical hourly schedule for students with individual learning plans for every girl. Students each pick a goal, work with an adviser and must land an internship that provides work experience two days a week.
Nicole Conaway, a certified math and biology teacher, said under the new model teachers are not allowed to have classes. Her role has been reduced to adviser for girls working on projects. On a recent day, she said 65 girls were in the building.
"I can offer lessons within content, but we can't require students to come to class," she said. "How do you start on a project if you don't even know anything? Projects can be a great way to learn, but they can't replace classroom teaching."
Principal G. Asenath Andrews disputes the enrollment drop. He said the numbers are closer to 100 now, down from 179 in September, with some girls returning for the fourth quarter in April.
Part of the reason for the loss, Andrews said, is the school's feeder system changed. As a DPS school, it received students from other high schools in the district. As a charter school, it does not get those referrals as districts do their best to hold on to students and the state aid that comes with them.
She defended the new curriculum, saying it gives students a deeper, broader way of learning.
"When they direct their learning … they take responsibility for what they are learning and how they are going to learn, instead of teachers doing it. It's a shift in the way they are learning. It's the way education is going," she said.
Last month, the Detroit Board of Education passed a resolution calling for a comparable program for pregnant students and young mothers to be reinstituted at DPS. The proposal will be discussed Wednesday.
"It's not a DPS school, but our public hearing is to discuss whether we need to re-establish such a facility in the all-girls schools we already have or what support services can we offer that (charter) school," board president LaMar Lemmons said.
Steve Wasko, spokesman for DPS, declined to say whether Emergency Financial Manager Roy Roberts would consider re-creating CFA within a district school.
He said young mothers who attend DPS continue their educations in traditional academic settings. The district does have an all-girls school for grades K-12, the Detroit International Academy for Young Women.