Photo: Francesco Lagnese
Step through the front doors of the Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit, and you've entered what seems to be a typically cash-starved inner-city school: dimly lit, with lockers painted the color of pea soup, lots of dingy old wood, and nothing even remotely luxurious or high-tech in sight. And since this is a school for teenage mothers and their babies in the poorest and most dangerous big city in America, well, it's impossible not to worry that the students' prospects may be as dim as the corridor.
But in the strange and strangely lovely city of Detroit, it's a mistake to make assumptions. The students of this school are lucky in their principal, a tall, drolly funny woman named Asenath Andrews, and college acceptance is a condition for graduation here. Head out the school's side door into a blaze of sunlight, and the most unlikely and inspiring sight appears: an urban farm that is almost breathtaking in its scope.
There are horses here grazing on what was once a running track. Endless beds of vegetables ring the oval perimeter. There's a full-fledged orchard. There are rabbits, there are chickens, and there's English teacher Andrew Kemp milking the goats. He and science teacher Paul Weertz grow almost all the feed for the farm on a vacant lot across town and get the students to help bale the hay.
Ask Asenath how such an ambitious agricultural venture emerged from a concrete schoolyard, and she rolls her eyes. "The rabbits turned into chickens and the chickens turned into goats. Then the goats turned into horses. We even had a steer for a while, until he knocked one of the kids over while she was pregnant. Then we sent him to a vocational school, where the students butchered him. Still educational," she says with a laugh.
Asenath, who grew up in a serious gardening family, with a grandfather who actually earned a living farming on Eight Mile Road at the Detroit city limits, has made gardens throughout her career. Early on she had the "crazy" idea that she could grow enough food for an entire school lunch program; now, older and wiser, she simply believes that agriculture is a powerful teaching tool. She points to a nifty solar-powered barn built by the students and grows rhapsodic: "The barn raising! I wish we could do a barn raising every semester. It's so empowering for girls to do construction."
Not only does the farm help her teenagers learn everything from carpentry to biology, it also teaches them to be better mothers, Asenath believes. "There are estimates that by age 3, poor kids have heard 30 million fewer words than kids in middle-class families." She pauses. "That 30-million-word deficit keeps me awake at night. We're trying to teach teenagers to talk to their babies. Well, there's a whole vocabulary attached to a garden that these teenagers can share."