Inside Marygrove College's new direction: How it was saved and where it's going

Residents of Northwest Detroit's Livernois-McNichols community are watching new developments at Marygrove College with a keen eye. A long-time neighborhood anchor, the private Catholic learning institution recently embarked on a new direction after years of financial challenges. 

Embracing a cradle-to-career approach to education, the college plans to build a new early childhood education center, renovate a former high school located on its grounds into a public K-12 school, and establish a special "residency" program for teachers. These plans will get going with a ninth grade pilot program this coming fall.
Dr. Elizabeth Burns
"It's a big leap," says Marygrove President Dr. Elizabeth Burns. "The hope is that this is going to become an educational model that can be used in urban areas throughout the country."

It is hard to understate the turbulence the school has had to push through to get to this point. For one, Marygrove has experienced some major leadership shakeups, with three different presidents at the helm between 2015 and 2016. And like a lot of private U.S. colleges, it's had to grapple with declining enrollment.

Financial woes related to a diminishing student base resulted in the college announcing the complete elimination of its undergraduate program in the summer of 2017. More than 50 employees were laid off and hundreds of undergrad students were left in the lurch after that decision. Marygrove ended that fiscal year with a deficit of nearly $4 million. 

The college faced bankruptcy and closure, and the surrounding neighborhood risked losing a community institution that had been part of the northwest Detroit landscape since 1927.

Thankfully, after a dramatic shift in direction, Marygrove now seems to be sailing a little smoother, albeit on a new course that takes it into uncharted territory. 

A different kind of education

The college's recent reinvention wouldn't have been possible without the assistance of partners like the Kresge Foundation

In 2016, shortly after being appointed Marygrove's new president, Dr. Burns reached out to the foundation to speak about the dire crisis her school faced. At the time, the organizations had already been working together through the Live6 Alliance and the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative, two northwest Detroit neighborhood revitalization efforts in which Kresge had invested heavily. 
Wendy Lewis Jackson
"We became aware of the challenges at Marygrove College and got involved mainly as a way to ensure that the incredible neighborhood asset and its campus weren't lost," says Wendy Lewis Jackson, managing director of Kresge's Detroit Program. 

So Kresge began working with Marygrove on two fronts, responding to the fiscal issues confronting the college and assisting it with its transformation to a new, more sustainable educational model. 

In February last year, the foundation announced a $16 million investment to help Marygrove cover ongoing operational expenses; support students, faculty and staff adjusting to the ending of the undergraduate program; assist with the changeover to a graduate-only studies program; maintain the college's 53-acre campus; shore up or restructure urgent debts; create a new entity called the Marygrove Conservancy to ensure the integrity of the campus as a community resource; and explore the possibility of a new cradle-to-career educational focus.

In September, the foundation announced an additional financial commitment, expected to bring the total to $50 million, for this new cradle-to-career educational approach. And a number of newly allied organizations came forward to join what Marygrove now refers to as its P-20 Partnership.

Through this partnership, Starfish Family Services will operate the early childhood learning center that will be built on the site. The Detroit Collaborative Design Center and IFF are now collaborating with a network of area early childhood education providers to create a holistic set of child and family support principles to guide that center's work. Additionally, the Detroit Public Schools Community District will run the K-12 school, which will be located in a rehabbed building that formerly housed Bates Academy and before that Immaculata High School. 

The childhood center and K-12 school will provide services to more than 1,000 Detroit kids and their families, the majority of which are expected to be coming from the neighborhoods surrounding the college.

The Liberal Arts building, which will temporarily house Marygrove's high school starting in the fall
Marygrove College is also working with the University of Michigan's School of Education as several of the colleges' programs are complementary.  U-M will develop a teacher "residency" program where graduates will work at the DPSCD school on Marygrove's campus. Marygrove's faculty in its Early Childhood Education program will work with educational partners on curriculum and graduate student education, as well as professional development.

For the Kresge Foundation, Marygrove's new approach is an opportunity to put education at the center of other revitalization efforts in the Livernois-McNichols district. 

Jackson is excited about the possibilities the P-20 framework opens up. She sees it as a way to "radically re-conceptualize how we think about opportunity in Detroit neighborhoods" by providing a "high-quality education coupled with wraparound support for families from birth up to a true career." 

The neighborhood responds

So how do the folks who live and work in the neighborhoods around Marygrove feel about the recent developments at the college?

Jevona Watson is an attorney who lives in the neighborhood and owns the local Detroit Sip coffeehouse. While she's a little dismayed by the closing of the undergraduate program, because she opened her establishment in part for its proximity to Marygrove and the University of Detroit Mercy, she's also optimistic about a new K-12 school opening up there.

"I'm excited about the possibility and am even contemplating the possibility of sending my own child," she says.

"We have to improve the educational system," she adds. "That's what's necessary to bring middle class working families with values back to Detroit."

Amas Muhammad, 30, is a bar manager and father to a young son who lives in the nearby Palmer Park neighborhood. He was a sophomore majoring in philosophy when the college cut its undergrad program in 2016. 

Though frustrated by his experience, he's glad Marygrove is sticking around. "I'd rather it still be a school, even if it's not the university I was attending," Muhammad says. "I feel that neighborhoods benefit from having it around."

He also backs the efforts by Marygrove and U-M School of Education to launch a teacher residency program.

"We need more teachers," he says. "If it's going to help tip the scales in a better educational direction, I'm supportive of that." 

Lolita Haley is a local realtor and director of the University Commons community development organization. She's more on the fence about what's been happening lately at Marygrove.

"I was disappointed they waited so long to turn around their situation," she says. "But on the other hand, they're not going away. Some of us feel if they go away, it's going to turn into a gated community with houses that we can't afford."

Local realtor Lolita Haley
And while Haley likes the idea of a preschool-to-college educational focus, she feels its important to look at the new initiative from a wider context.

"It's always great to talk about schools, but you've got surrounding schools that are failing. Why aren't they helping those children in those schools, and who are these for? I'm interested to see how it out works out."

The course ahead

With all these changes taking place, Marygrove appears to be in a much better place now.

The college's graduate program has adopted more of an online presence, which has opened up new out-of-state markets to enrollment. And, through a generous alumni donation, the school is about to launch a new marketing campaign.

The new Marygrove Conservancy board is meeting regularly. Application is open for enrollment in the new K-12 school's pilot ninth grade program, which is set to begin this fall. And the early childhood center should open its doors by 2020. 

Next year, DPSCD will also launch kindergarten and 10th grade classes, and all primary school and high school classes are expected to be operational by 2029, with students from the neighborhood receiving priority enrollment. DPSCD is currently collaborating with U-M to jointly develop K-8 and 9-12 curricula for the new school facility.  

Ultimately, Dr. Burns hopes all these elements will come together in the next several years to create an innovative school for neighborhood kids that will serve as a model for other urban communities.

"The whole development is really aimed at staying in the community, staying as a neighborhood anchor, and bringing something to the neighborhood that would be lost had Marygrove closed," she says. "It's not going to be tomorrow, but it's going to be a very exciting campus, and I think it will be a very big support for the neighborhood."

This article is part of a series where we revisit stories from our On the Ground installment and explore new ones in the Live6 area. It is supported by the Kresge Foundation.

Photos, except where mentioned, by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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