The Liberal Arts Building on Marygrove College campus


Michigan’s public education problems were underscored this year when Bridge Magazine uncovered that more than 2,500 Michigan classrooms were led by uncertified, long-term substitutes in the 2018-19 school year—marking a tenfold increase in just five years. There’s a myriad of challenges facing public education, particularly amongst teachers. From the teacher strikes nationwide to what The Economic Policy Institute terms “the perfect storm in the teacher labor market,” many say American public education is in crisis. But this isn’t a grim story about education. It’s about how the University of Michigan is teaming up with Southeast Michigan organizations to rewrite the current narrative of America’s public education system.

Through a new collaborative partnership with the Detroit Public Schools Community District, Starfish Family Services, Marygrove Conservancy, and The Kresge Foundation, U-M launched a cradle-to-career educational campus in Northwest Detroit. The educational campus marks one of the first “P-20” (preschool through higher education) partnerships in the country.

The partnership includes a K-12 school named the School at Marygrove, an early childhood education center, and a cutting edge teacher training program. Collectively, the educational campus will seek to turn the tide of public education in Detroit. By 2029 the campus will be at full capacity, serving more than 1,000 Detroit children and their families—all on the grounds of the former Marygrove College.

A mother kissing her student's forehead on the first day of school
Preparing for the first day at the School at Marygrove
*Photo by Montez Miller, courtesy The Kresge Foundation.

Endings and New Beginnings

In June, Marygrove College announced that the Fall 2019 Semester would be its final chapter as an institution. With its undergraduate programs discontinued in 2017 and years of declining enrollment, closing the book on Marygrove’s graduate programs was a difficult but necessary decision, according to Marygrove College President and alumna Elizabeth Burns.

Marygrove has long been a hub for education in Detroit, and it has held a special place in the community for almost a century. The college’s history reaches back even further—before Marygrove was called Marygrove and before Motown was its home.

Through rather unpropitious circumstances, a college began to form fifty miles south of Detroit, in Monroe, Michigan. Momentum for St. Mary College started with a keen alumna of St. Mary Academy (now St. Mary Catholic Central High School) who wanted to continue her education. Yet, in 1899, there simply weren’t many universities in Michigan for women to attend. So St. Mary began teaching undergraduate courses, and by 1914, the school had its first graduating class. It was the only college for women in the Detroit Diocese and one of the earliest women’s colleges in Michigan.

St. Mary undergraduate offerings continued to grow. In 1925, the foundation was laid for a new building on West McNichols Road in Northwest Detroit. Two years later, the Tudor, gothic-style Liberal Arts Building opened its doors for the first time, welcoming a new class of 187 freshmen. With a brand new space and city to call home, St. Mary acquired a new name as well: Marygrove College.

By then, Marygrove had already developed a reputation for its social justice activity and empowering education. More than as a preparation for marriage—as it was often conceptualized at the time—Women were encouraged to view their college education as a means to “do their part in the world’s work in whatever sphere of life they may be placed,” in the words of the first lay president of Marygrove College, George Hermann Derry.

Times have changed, and education looks much different today than in the early twentieth century. But Marygrove’s 53-acre campus will continue to be an educational hub for Detroit. “One of the university’s pillars is a commitment to remain an anchor institution in this Detroit neighborhood and an institutional leader in the city of Detroit. The P-20 model ensures we continue that mission,” said President Elizabeth Burns.

As Marygrove College finishes its final semester, an inaugural class of 120 high school freshmen, as part of the P-20 partnership, will finish their first semester in the historic halls of Marygrove’s Liberal Arts Building. Along with occupying Marygrove’s former stomping grounds, the partnership carries on the college’s mission to inspire and empower societal shifters and community shapers.

The P-20 Educational Partnership

The cradle-to-career educational campus is unlike any other institution in Detroit. Through the P-20 partnership, a more hands-on, holistic educational experience is being imagined, where learning opportunities will promote social justice, foster student agency, connect students’ academic work with broader community needs, and much more.

An academic procession at Marygrove College in 1931.
An academic procession at Marygrove College in 1931.
*Courtesy Marygrove College

The School at Margrove’s project- and place-based curricula and inquiry-based STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education engages students with their own neighborhoods and creates spaces for them to learn alongside experts from the University of Michigan. Every ninth-grader is taking a U-M-developed course in Human Centered Design and Engineering, where they will grapple with a variety of real-world problems. The ongoing facilities renovation provides an exciting opportunity for students to use their burgeoning design skills to inform the renovation design process, and to help make their campus a more dynamic and inclusive learning space.

The campus also adopts a “community schools” approach—a more holistic and sustainable model that recognizes that physiological, sociocultural, or socioemotional needs are critical to student learning. By providing an ecosystem of support, the model aspires to give every student who passes through its doors the chance to succeed at the highest level.

This approach enables U-M to leverage its breadth of resources to advance the partnership and spur collaborations across campus.

The School of Dentistry is just one of many U-M schools and colleges planning to get involved, with visions for dental clinic on site. Oral hygiene isn’t always top of mind for students and their families, but research shows that healthy teeth are critical for students to stay engaged. In addition, the campus also hopes to offer a counseling center, medical and vision clinics with support from Michigan Medicine, and other resources as well. It’s truly a team effort.

“I believe the work that we do as a university with Detroit, with its educators and with our community partners, provides terrific examples of how the interests of cities and research universities are not only mutual, they’re inseparable,” said U-M President Mark Schlissel.

Professional support for its teachers is another key ingredient. In a program modeled after teaching hospitals, the School of Education’s (SOE) new Teaching School offers a teacher residency for newly certified teachers where they are supported by expert teachers and SOE faculty and staff for three additional years. In addition to serving as full-time members of the school’s teaching staff, the residents also serve as near peer mentors to SOE interns pursuing their degrees. “For too long, universities have been largely separated from the pre-K to 12 settings for which they are educating new professionals,” said Elizabeth Moje, dean of the School of Education, George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Education, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor. “We’re excited to develop teachers who are prepared to serve their students in any and every learning environment, and to create a model for preparation that honors the complex work of teaching and the need for strong communities of practice.”

So how does all of this address the education crisis?

The tenfold increase of substitute teachers in Michigan public classrooms is due, in part, to the lack of certified teachers in Michigan. There’s no silver bullet to this shortage, but the P-20 partnership’s teacher training program is aimed specifically at addressing the high turnover of early career teachers—a primary cause of the shortage. By providing young teachers with an infrastructure of support, they will have a higher threshold for success that will set them on the right foot at the start of their career. Correspondingly, well-supported teachers will have better resources to cultivate a healthy and stable learning environment for their students.

Investing in the Future

The infrastructure for the P-20 partnership is made possible by the largest philanthropic Detroit neighborhood investment in the city’s history, led by The Kresge Foundation. The partnership aligns with The Kresge Foundation’s mission to expand opportunities in American cities by taking a grassroots approach to community development. It recognizes that robust educational systems are vital for neighborhoods to flourish, and families are attracted to cities based in part on the kind of education their children will receive. In this way, the educational campus is not merely an infrastructure investment, but an investment in the children that are the future of Detroit and its communities.

A teaching standing in a classroom full of students.
Inside the classroom of the School at Marygrove
*Courtesy the University of Michigan School of Education

“Community development isn’t just happening in downtown and Midtown, and it isn’t just about bricks and mortar,” said Kresge President Rip Rapson. “This is community development that invests in people, in the social fabric that makes neighborhoods unique. That’s what the future of this campus represents.”

The P-20 partnership relies on the ambition and commitment of students, teachers, professors, and community leaders—as well as donors—to ensure its success. Until the educational campus is fully developed over the next ten years, the U-M community’s support for the partnership is as critical as ever. Enhancements that extend beyond a traditional school environment, such as dental, medical, and vision services; student-teacher transportation; curriculum innovation and implementation depend on philanthropic support.

As U-M continues to partner with cities like Detroit, the potential for finding evidence-based, long-term solutions for major societal challenges becomes reality. This work is fueled by generous donors and alumni who have the vision to make an impact. It’s an exciting time to be a part of the leaders and best.


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