Defend Public Education

Detroit Students Occupy Catherine Ferguson Academy High School

Posted in Uncategorized by Nicole Conaway on April 16, 2011

With support from hundreds of Detroiters, students at the Catherine Ferguson Academy occupied their school for several hours after school on Friday April 15. Their peaceful sit-in was in protest of the proposed closure or charter school conversion of their school along with dozens of other Detroit Public Schools.  Throughout the day, supporters brought food, water, sleeping bags, art supplies, baby items, and words of encouragement, and rallied outside the school.

Students and supporters created posters and discussed their reasons for the protest with each other and media, posted videos and tweeted to gather more support, and made plans to stay in the school as long as possible. When agents of the Emergency Manager Rob Bobb appeared and gave the first warning to leave, the occupiers secured themselves in the library and read their demands (listed in press release below) and gave inspiring speeches via loudspeaker to a roaring crowd outside who continued chanting even over police sirens.

Just a few police cars arrived at first, including a K-9 unit. Supporters blocked them for a while. When they did eventually get in, they gave a warning to all inside to leave or be arrested. As the group circled together and decided to sit down, police announced everyone was under arrest. The first person taken into custody was a professional film-maker who had recorded footage of the entire day. Her camera and film were confiscated by DPS police. Police threatened to turn two  young children who were with their mothers over to child protective services. (The children were released outside to the school principal and home with their mothers within hours.)

The occupiers sat down as police put the cuffs on. Police brutally dragged and choked several protesters, using excessive force on Ashley, a very petite student, choking and slamming her against the police car. A supporter picketing outside was also slammed down onto a car and arrested.  All protesters were ticketed for being unauthorized persons on school property and released.

I’ve never felt such solidarity as I did riding to the police station with two students chanting for the entire ride, “Public Education is a right! By any means necessary, we will fight!” and hearing over the police radio that 60 of our supporters were on their way to meet us at the station, then walking out and seeing the crowd and being surrounded by students in a great group hug.  It was especially encouraging to see how integrated the crowd was. As the chant goes “Black, Latino, Asian and white, for public education we will fight!” One supporter told me, “this is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re ready now.”

As their teacher, I am humbled by the courage and determination of the students, and encouraged by the outpouring of community support.  Several people have said things like “those girls are lucky to have you” and “they learn so much from you”, but the truth is they were leading me all along and I am lucky to know them.

All supporters are asked to sign our petition, committing themselves to support actions to public education and boycott any charter school that attempts to take our schools and displace our students.



Following in the civil rights tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Catherine Ferguson students — along with their babies and toddlers, teachers and supporters — have begun a peaceful occupation of Catherine Ferguson Academy (CFA). CFA, located at 2750 Selden, is a Detroit Public school that is slated to be closed in June. The students who are sitting down have five demands:

  • No School Closings
  • Keep All Detroit Schools Public – No More Charters or Privatization
  • Reinstate all programs and services that have been eliminated, including art & music as  well as counselors & social workers
  • Student Control of Curriculum and School Character to assure that every Detroit school provides equal, quality education for all
  • No discipline or retaliation against any of the participants in the occupation

Catherine Ferguson Academy (CFA) is a Detroit public high school for pregnant and parenting teen girls– the only one of its kind in the nation. Providing an excellent education and services for both the teen mothers and their children, CFA has received international attention, numerous awards and is the subject of several documentaries.

“When people at my regular high school realized that I was pregnant, I was told my chances of being a success in life were over. At Catherine Ferguson, they told me they wouldn’t allow me to be anything BUT a success. I love CFA, and I am prepared to fight to keep it open, not only for myself, but for all the girls who will come behind me,” said Ashley Matthews, a junior at CFA.

With approximately 200 students who come not only from Detroit, but also from the surrounding suburbs, every year Catherine Ferguson achieves a 90% graduation rate and 100% of those who graduate are accepted to two- or four-year colleges, most with financial aid.

“If this school closes, or if any of our services are eliminated, I believe that over half of CFA students will drop out of high school because they don’t have anyone to watch their baby while they attend classes,” said Dalana Gray, who is a senior at CFA. Also, this school benefits our children, because the early education program teaches them a lot that they wouldn’t learn if they were kept at home.”

The school provides pre-natal and parenting classes, and offers high school student mothers the opportunity to finish their high school education immediately after giving birth by providing on-site daycare, early childhood development services, and pre-school for their children, as well as on-site medical, dental and social services, so the young women don’t have to miss school to attend appointments. What also makes CFA unique is its organic garden and farm with chickens, goats and a horse, which the students maintain as part of their science education.

Nicole Conaway, a science teacher at CFA who decided to join her students in the occupation said, “As a teacher, I can find another job, but for my students, if Catherine Ferguson closes, there are no alternatives. The same can be said for many of the students at other schools on the closing list – the Day School for the Deaf; Rutherford, which is the home of two autistic programs; Moses Field, which educates many learning disabled children, and several neighborhood schools that are the anchors for their communities. It’s time to say: no more. ”

”The massive school closures that have been carried out in DPS since 2004 have led to the depopulation of Detroit and to the deepening financial crisis of the district. Public schools are being closed to make way for charters and are part of the national attack on public education. Today Detroit– tomorrow, every city in America. The parents and students of Catherine Ferguson are fighting to maintain the right of every student in our nation to a free, quality public education. Every supporter of public education should do everything possible to support their fight and make sure they succeed”, said Shanta Driver, National Chairperson of By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), which is helping to organize and coordinate the occupations.

For more information, call Monica Smith at 313-585-3637 or call 855-ASK-BAMN


6 Responses

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  1. […] April 15, in an impressive display of democracy, organizing skill and courage, the young women from CFA protested the decision to close the school. Several students and community members peacefully occupied the […]

  2. Ginny Foster said, on April 25, 2011 at 10:12 PM

    To Asenath Andrews: I’m following your challenges with high hopes and deep respect for you and your staff and students. I’m grateful that Rachel Maddow is covering your story and appalled at the “state” our “state” is in. Your arts friends from the past are on your side! Thank you for all you do. Love, Ginny Foster

  3. Joseph A. Mungai said, on April 23, 2011 at 8:37 PM

    I read a student report of “vicious physical and verbal brutality” by police in Michigan. The Police force in Madison Wisconsin was able to treat non-pregnant peaceful protestors with dignity and respect and there were over 100,000 people in attendance.

    We have to ask police officers in every state if they support the behavior of Michigan’s “public servants,” the right of pregnant teenagers to peacefully address grievances and the wisdom and empathy of Catherine Ferguson taught to future generations in our public school system.

  4. LJSearles said, on April 23, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    This is not winning the future.

  5. Jennifer Luznar said, on April 17, 2011 at 5:18 PM

    Whether it be local or national
    If you have any fame to your name
    Realize that our educational woes aren’t due to teachers and schools
    But that society’s attitude toward public ed. is to blame.
    PLEASE use your influence
    So America’s SURE TO WIN this game.


  6. Nicole Conaway said, on April 17, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    Media Coverage of Catherine Ferguson Academy Sit-In

    Andrew Bradley YouTube Videos

    Rick Smith Radio Show in Pennsylvania

    Report from BAMN Teacher/Occupier Nicole Conaway

    Update: Students occupy Detroit school
    Catherine Ferguson Academy students protest pending privatizion of school
    By ROBERT GUTTERSOHN | The South End
    Updated: 3 hours ago

    Students, faculty take over Detroit school in protest
    April 15, 2011
    By W. Kim Heron | metrotimesblogs
    (Posted by Heron, written by Simone Landon)

    Sit-In At Ferguson Leads To Arrests
    April 15, 2011 9:58 PM
    CBS Detroit (WWJ)
    Protesters Arrested at DPS’ Catherine Ferguson Academy
    School for Pregnant, Parenting Teens Could Close
    Updated: Friday, 15 Apr 2011, 10:53 PM EDT
    Published : Friday, 15 Apr 2011, 10:53 PM EDT
    WJBK |

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