But since then, much of the staff has changed. Enrollment is down. Recruitment is tough; many heard the school closed in 2011, but not as many understood it reopened under new management. When it exited the Detroit Public Schools, it lost its clearest connection to pregnant teens. Now, Catherine Ferguson has turned to handing out goody bags to new mothers in local maternity wards.
The school's new curriculum this year changed the structure of students' days and focused on personalized learning -- a shift that confounded some teachers and students. They're fighting back with marches and a lawsuit, and say the school population is shrinking because of the new learning model.
The disagreements and uncertainty frustrate the students, teachers and Andrews. But then, educating a girl who's raising a child wasn't easy when Andrews started 30 years ago, either. In Detroit, Andrews says, the idea has been ignored and insulted, lost entirely in social stigma, political infighting and information voids.
"We've had detractors, we've had enemies, we've had slings and arrows," Andrews said. "Lots of people think, 'Forget it, if they don't finish high school, so what? They're just throwaways.'"
For girls, Andrews said, "the struggles are the same. The world is a harder place."
How school should be
The Detroit of Asenath Andrews' childhood hardly resembles the one where most of her students live now.
The family farm along 8 Mile Road lined her grandparents' basement with preserved vegetables, tomato sauce and jam. In the 1950s and '60s, dozens of cousins lived within walking distance and gathered every Sunday for dinner.
Andrews' parents split shifts at the Dodge plant so one of them always could be home with the kids. The boundaries of right and wrong seemed clear, and she and her siblings knew when they'd crossed one: "That's not what Andrews kids do."
Andrews' parents hadn't gone to college but dangled its promise before their children -- they expected, assumed, planned that their children would go.
"In school, everybody knows who the smart kids are, and I was smart," Andrews says. "We were never taught to be stuck. I was so tired of hearing 'Look it up.'"
Just as planned, she entered Olivet College, a small liberal arts school in mid-Michigan, in the late 1960s. She studied psychology and art, occasionally trading paintings for rent. Before she finished, she tacked on a teaching certificate, believing she might someday home school children of her own.
It led, instead, to a job teaching elementary school art in Detroit. She was the youngest person on staff, all bangles, braids and wild ideas. She painted hopscotch through the hallways and pulled kids from their desks to build sculptures in the snow. She relished the support of the principal, who saw them at work and told her, This is how school should be. She realized her role was to teach other people's children. Simply, "school is for kids." She never had any of her own.
After years working with gifted students and managing art teachers around the district, she was pitched the idea of working with a little-known program for pregnant girls. For years, it had operated inside a Salvation Army building near the Detroit River; it was designed to keep the girls until they delivered their babies, then send them back to school as if nothing had changed.
It was well-meaning, Andrews said, and it was a failure. For all the work teachers put in, young moms still weren't graduating.
"Our girls were coming back saying 'I'm in regular school now, I'm starting to mess up,'" she said. "'My child care is falling through and I can't go.' 'That same crowd that I was hanging with that was getting me in trouble? I'm back with them.'"
What Andrews wanted was a school, a whole building, just for her girls -- a school flexible enough to fit their lives and lead them to graduation.
The idea seemed almost as far-fetched then as it does now. As far as Detroit school leaders were concerned, "getting pregnant is no different from knocking over a liquor store," Andrews said. Reward girls with special treatment, she was often told, and everyone will be getting pregnant.
That idea, she said, is "patently absurd." She believed the lesson from her own childhood still applied: "Kids pretty much do what you expect them to do."
What happened next is the stuff of school lore: One day she was walking with a group of pregnant students when they spotted a solid brick building with big windows and bold flourishes ringing the top -- a onetime elementary school named for Henry A. Chaney, Detroit's first public library director.
There it sat, empty.
A few of them boosted a girl inside, who propped open a door to let in the rest. They wandered from room to room, re-imagining the auditorium's small stage, the library fireplace, the lawn that stretched around it, all the vacant classrooms.
The police officer who arrived was less impressed by their vision. He handcuffed Andrews but decided to let her go once he considered her youthful, pregnant accomplices.
Andrews pressed her campaign for a school -- inviting the superintendent to breast-feeding workshops and baby showers. She hung holiday decorations with her program's name outside Chaney school and found ways to make district leaders drive past. She pleaded and lobbied and argued until finally Andrews and her idea moved to the little brick school on Selden Street, where they've remained since.
In the school's early years, students voted to name it after Catherine Ferguson, a slave who worked to buy her freedom and went on to educate and find homes for children on the streets of New York.