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"We have to teach ourselves:" students at Detroit's Catherine Ferguson Academy file federal lawsuit

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Some students and staff at Detroit’s Catherine Ferguson Academy say their education is so lackluster, it violates their civil rights.

The Detroit Public Schools handed the school for pregnant and parenting girls over to a charter operator in 2011, after students and teachers fought to keep it from closing.

This school year, administrators implemented a curriculum called the "Big Picture Model," which centers around project-based, career-focused learning.

But some students, like 17-year-old Tatyana Baker, say without formal classes, they're barely being educated at all.

“We sit in one classroom all day,” Baker says. “We are told that we have to teach ourselves.”

“We are not allowed to call our teachers “teachers”…they’re advisors. If you need biology class, you get a 15 minute seminar, maybe once a week.”

The civil rights activist group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Catherine Ferguson students and one teacher.

“The defendants…are discriminating against students at Catherine Ferguson Academy through providing an education to pregnant and parenting female students that is substantially inferior” to that of most other schools, the plaintiffs claim.

“With no regular classes, students have missed out on discussions, dialogues, and even arguments that allow them to develop critical thinking skills," says teacher Nicole Conaway.

The suit also alleges that the school lacks certified foreign language, physical education, and other kinds of teachers for courses mandated in the Michigan Merit Curriculum.

The lawsuit names the school’s charter operator, Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy, the Detroit Public Schools, the Wayne County Regional Education Service Agency (RESA), and the heads of those agencies.

A spokeswoman for the Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy says the group has not seen the lawsuit yet, and cannot comment on it. She did confirm that Catherine Ferguson Academy uses the “Big Picture Model.”

Blanche Kelso Bruce runs several “strict discipline academies” across Detroit for “youth outside the educational mainstream.”

The schools require a Juvenile Court order to attend, something that “classifies pregnant and parenting girls with so-called juvenile delinquents," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges several other federal and state civil rights violations, and seeks damages for the plaintiffs.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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