Dana Odums recalls the fanfare and excitement that kicked off her freshman year of high school. TV cameras, blue and yellow pom poms, and the cheers and applause of their new teachers greeted her and her classmates at the door of Detroit’s new School at Marygrove.
Four years later, she got to relieve some of that pageantry as she walked across the stage with 95 of her classmates at the Music Hall Center for Performing Arts.
For the seniors at Wednesday’s graduation, the ceremony was more than pomp and circumstance. It was a milestone in Detroit’s education history.
In 2019, those students and their families took a chance and enrolled at an experimental high school in northwest Detroit. Eighty-seven of those original students were among the graduates who received diplomas Wednesday. Nine others had enrolled in the school in between its founding year and graduation.
The visible joy of the students was shared by their family and friends, who delivered roaring applause as each student stepped onto the stage, decked in their royal blue caps and gowns. Some adorned their caps with goodbye messages, flowers, and motivational quotes.
Hundreds of people came out to celebrate the inaugural graduating class, including Michigan Supreme Court Justice Kyra Bolden, who gave the commencement speech.
Marygrove senior Raijuan Lenoir marveled at the significance of the event.
“It feels kind of weird,” Lenoir said. “One hundred years from now, we’re still going to be the first students to ever graduate from this school.”
Parent Eddie Fleming said the ceremony “means everything” to him and his daughter, Sha’Cari Fleming-Brown, who transferred to Marygrove in her junior year. Despite being accepted into Cass Tech and Renaissance, she chose Marygrove for its project-based learning.
“I told her it’s going to be a challenge, but one day you could be one of those plaques on the wall in the future … a forefather,” Fleming said.
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Located on the 53-acre Marygrove College campus, The School at Marygrove was conceived as part of an ambitious “cradle to career” program to serve students from preschool through graduate school.
“We envisioned a place where education would transcend traditional boundaries,” said Michael Chrzan, the founding math teacher at Marygrove. “We set out on a journey to create a safe haven of learning, a place where critical thinking and community-mindedness would flourish.”
In 2021, the Marygrove Early Education Center opened to the public. Last fall, the School at Marygrove launched its elementary school for kindergarten through second grade. The school will eventually expand to a K-8 school.
The initiative is a joint effort of the Detroit Public Schools Community District (which runs the academic operations of the School at Marygrove), Starfish Family Services, and the Kresge Foundation.
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A partnership with the University of Michigan also created a teacher incubator program in 2020 that trains teachers, similar to residencies for medical doctors.
As a high school, the School at Marygrove was designed with a project-based curriculum that emphasizes engineering and social justice. What began as a single hallway of classrooms in the Gothic-inspired building has grown year by year. The school enrolled roughly 350 students in grades 9-12 for the 2022-23 school year, its first year with all four high school grades.
For Odums and her father, who heard a radio ad for The School at Marygrove four years ago, the promise of a new school, complete with smaller classes and access to educational resources from the University of Michigan, was too good to pass up.
“It was just a perfect storm,” she recalls.
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Since its founding, the School at Marygrove has afforded students an unusual amount of influence over their education. Students had input on the setup and design of their classrooms, conducted tests of the drinking water in their building, and hosted virtual wellness days for students during the pandemic.
After the deadly school shootings in Oxford, Michigan, and Uvalde, Texas, Marygrove students and staff staged sickouts and walkouts to call attention to the building’s safety concerns.
But much of the school’s early history was eclipsed by the COVID pandemic, which shifted students to remote learning. From there, students had to adapt to the technological and social-emotional challenges of learning at home.
“It really went downhill with COVID,” Odums said. “We were a new school. We didn’t even get our foot on the ground.”
As class valedictorian, Odums dedicated her speech to the trials and triumphs her classmates experienced, emphasizing their perseverance and hard work, as well as the tight bond shared by many of the inaugural Class of 2023.
“It was definitely different,” coming back into the building for the 2021-22 school year, Odums told Chalkbeat. “I don’t think those connections we had in our ninth grade year were still the same initially. The expectations of ourselves were different, and we really had to shift gears and move way faster. We were really playing catch-up.”
The school’s staff and students have also navigated a revolving door in leadership: Marygrove’s founding and second principals left within the first few months of the building’s opening. This year, the high school welcomed its fifth principal.
As the newest examination high school, Marygrove is still a long way from competing academically with Cass Tech and Renaissance high schools, Odums said. But she’s optimistic about the school’s reputation and legacy.
“Just to see the school expand while we grow is definitely monumental,” Odums said.
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at email@example.com.