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Girls' school with garden bearing fruit

G. Asenath Andrews doesn't think it is a big deal that the pregnant or parenting girls in the alternative school she leads in the middle of Detroit also care for a functioning farm, complete with animals and a beehive.

"My family has always grown their own food," Andrews said. "My grandfather actually farmed in Detroit, on Eight Mile Road, when he moved here in 1920. I've never not gone out and picked dinner in my whole life."

So, 25 years ago, when she was named the principal of Ferguson Academy for Young Women, Andrews started a garden outside of the school, which then was a part of the Salvation Army building.

After three years, the school moved to a site with more than 2 acres of land. Andrews turned the playground and running track into a garden that has grown into a working farm and turned the practical aspects of farming into a curriculum and life experiences for the girls.

There are beds of vegetables, an orchard, rabbits, chickens, horses, goats and sheep.

Currently, 320 girls, mostly African-American and Hispanic, are enrolled at the academy on a first-come, first-served basis, along with 160 children in the child care component. Some 90 percent of the students are accepted into a two- or four-year institution of higher learning after graduation, and 80 percent do not have a second pregnancy.

Despite being either mothers or expectant mothers, 97 percent of the students attend classes daily.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Association of Secondary School Principals named it a "Breakthrough High School" in 2004, and the school has won many other accolades.

Andrews will be in Lexington, Louisville and Berea this week, talking about the academy, urban farming and exploring ways to educate differently.

She will be showing a documentary made about her school at all her appearances as a fund-raiser to send 10 of her students to South Africa this summer to teach other young people how to farm in small spaces.

How does an inner-city school for pregnant girls turn into an urban farm? How do city slickers become farmers?

Detroit has been rocked for several years by the downturn in the automobile industry. Unemployment soared, people left the city in droves, and abandoned property sat neglected.

Most of the larger grocery chains had bailed on Detroit, leaving some neighborhoods without a good source of fresh food.

But that scenario was just a bump in the road for anyone with a farming background, especially when partnered with teachers who see empty lots as opportunities.

"The science teacher brought in rabbits," Andrews said, "and the rabbits turned into goats, and a steer and a horse.

"I don't like animals, not even goldfish," Andrews said, laughing. "I don't want to touch anything not talking to me.

"But the girls love it. They will bring extra clothes to go out and milk the goat. They chase the animals and grab on the chickens."

Andrews, a Fulbright Scholar, said she learned to grow vegetables in raised beds after seeing the pregnant girls falling over trying to weed, plant or harvest. The girls were taught how to use power tools, and they helped build the raised beds. They also helped to build a solar-powered barn.

Last year, Dutch filmmakers Mascha and Manfred Poppenk began filming a documentary about Ferguson.

The crew was around so much and for so long, Andrews said, she and the girls stopped noticing them, which was good and bad.

"It is a documentary," she said. "There are parts I'd like to take out, like some kids sleeping in the classroom and that I should have combed my hair. But it is real."

The completed film, Grown in Detroit, has won many awards including the prestigious Austin Film Festival's award for best documentary. There will be several showings of the documentary over the next three days, Sunday to Tuesday. The showings are free, however, donations will be requested.

The 10 students going to South Africa have been selling items, having bake sales, cleaning and asking for donations at churches to raise the $500 each of them is required to raise to attend Youth Entrepreneurship International in Johannesburg, July 28-Aug. 13.

Ferguson will be moving this fall to a new building because Detroit officials have announced the closing of 44 schools and an administration building by June, in a budget-tightening measure.

Andrews has said, "As hard as it is to think of a new location, I think this move is best for the future of the school."

She also noted she has requested help in moving the farm to the new location.

Jim Embry, director of the Sustainable Communities Network and a community garden organizer, said he will travel to Detroit again this summer to help move the farm. Embry volunteered at the academy during the five years he lived in Detroit beginning in 2000.

"It is one of the longest-running and best models of urban agriculture," said Embry, who was instrumental in bringing Andrews to the Bluegrass. "It is an outstanding example of how to take students at risk and provide a model where they can succeed."