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Making an education vision real in Detroit

Jun 18, 2014

A Boggs School class picture.
Credit The James and Grace Lee Boggs School

The James and Grace Lee Boggs School just wrapped up its first year. It’s a K-4 charter on Detroit's eastside that hopes to grow to a K-12.  The school had an ambitious, community-based vision, that’s being tempered by the day-to-day reality of running a school.  

A few weeks ago, the students and staff at the Boggs School took a walk.

They ended up at the corner of Heidelberg and Ellery Streets, just about a mile from school. When they got there, they saw that polka-dots and naked dolls and charred houses had taken over the block.

Here's a video of their trip to The Heidelberg Project:

Artist Tyree Guyton began the public art project in 1986. The students saw  Guyton as both a celebrity and a neighbor.  Someone who stayed put and changed the reality of his neighborhood.  That’s something Principal Julia Putnam wants to instill in her students.

“I want a kid to graduate from our school and be able to look around and be like, I’ve been in this neighborhood forever, I know exactly what businesses will work.  I know exactly what the needs are in this community and in Detroit in general,” Putnam said.

A mural at the Boggs School in Detroit.
Credit Boggs School

This approach to schooling is called place-based education.

The idea that, from a very early age, students are given the opportunity to figure out what the problems are where they live and how to help fix them. In Putnam’s mind, an important part of this philosophy is getting to know her students’ parents.  Many of whom live in the neighborhood. 

“And if we’re going to respect the place, we have to respect the parents and the context in which they’re living. We’ve always talked about not looking down on parents.  And not coming in as the saviors to educate their children, despite them,” she stressed.

Third and fourth grade teacher Jasmine Noble says she spent the whole year building rapport with parents.  But yesterday was her last day as a classroom teacher.  She’s furiously writing grants to support a position she’s inventing.  Something like life coach slash resource coordinator. 

Yvette Thompson is the mother of three kids at the Boggs School.  She says at their old school, she kept to herself. But the staff here have helped her come out of her shell.  Now she’s part of the Boggs School’s Exploratory Community Outreach Group.  Where she works on the school’s relationship with the neighborhood.

“I always had ideas, just like even living in the complex where I stay. I would sit back and look at certain people and talk to certain people and I would find out that they would have all these talents. Like, ok, well this person is an excellent book keeper.  This person is excellent at researching,” Thompson said.

Kids at the Boggs School in Detroit.
Credit Boggs School

The Boggs School’s mission isn’t to change people.  It’s to bring the out the potential that’s already there, and the staff and parents here see a lot of potential with what this school can do for education in the city. But what they’re trying here is a little different, a little bold. And with that ambition come some challenges.

There has been some criticism about the school effectively communicating their plans to parents.

And a planned renovation of the second floor over the summer could come down to the wire.  But the staff and teachers at the Boggs School are doing their best to plan for the future.  They seek advice from other schools around the country with similar, community based missions.  But in the end, they’re inventing their approach with each passing day.  And that’s what makes their work so exciting.