Meet the three women leading the educational transformation at Marygrove

Marygrove College was known for a unique curriculum that imbued “all of its academic programs with social justice and citizen-leadership themes,” Model D correspondent David Sands wrote in 2019.

“Marygrove has held a special place in Southeast Michigan’s educational landscape for more than nine decades,” he added. “During this time, more than 44,000 graduates (of both bachelor’s and master’s programs) have been instilled with Marygrove’s distinctive educational vision.” 

I was one of those graduates. I chose to attend Marygrove in 2004 on a whim after reading a course catalog belonging to my mother who also graduated from Marygrove, as did my aunt, and several cousins. The beautiful sprawling campus is just three blocks from my family home and the institution loomed large over my family and our neighborhood. 

Education at Marygrove meant learning to care. The college was founded by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM Sisters). “The Three C’s” — Competence, Commitment, and Compassion — along with social justice and a deep love for Detroit were built into classes and activities like community service required to graduate. 

Since 2019, Marygrove is now the home to “P-20,” an innovative model that educates a student through the entire educational spectrum. The program features a dynamic new $15 million early childhood education center, a K-12 school, and support for various post-graduation pathways. “It’s our desire that we have students that never have to leave this campus and that through our partnerships pathways are opened to our students that have never been available before,” says Racheal Allen, chief operating officer of the Marygrove Conservancy.

P-20 is made up of five major partners: The Marygrove Conservancy, Kresge Foundation, the University of Michigan, Detroit Public Schools Community District, and Starfish Family Services. 

Three visionary women are leading the efforts to create and execute this transformative educational model: Michelle White, principal, The School at Marygrove; Celina Byrd, principal, Marygrove Early Childhood Educational Center, and Racheal Allen, Chief Operating Officer, The Marygrove Conservancy. Learn more about their vision, and the significance of Black women leadership.

An ‘inaugural, historic moment’

Celina Byrd. TBoydston Photography LLC.Celina Byrd launched and operated her own child care center in the city of Detroit and has been educating children and families for over 20 years. In 2014, Byrd joined Starfish Family Services, tasked with increasing the quality and impact of early childhood education programs. Byrd has a bachelor's degree in information management and a master's degree in educational administration.

The Marygrove Early Childhood Education Center was years in the making. 
“Even in the design of the center itself we took great care by speaking with the community and how the community could be reflected in the architecture of the building. The design of the center honors the integrity of the Marygrove campus. The process to bring this center to Detroit has been in the making for quite some time. Starfish Family Services is the services provider and we are on track to open in the fall of 2021. The center will house 144 children in 12 classrooms, six being infant-toddler, four being preschool, and two flex rooms that will be based on enrollment and community need.”

“Marygrove-Starfish is the foundation for the babies. We lay the groundwork for future learning. The beauty of this project is the educational continuum being onsite, it’s that warm handoff to Michelle and her team transitioning the babies from pre-K to kindergarten and aligning curriculum to see successful outcomes.”

“We are excited to make an impact on the lives of children, I’m sure Michelle would echo me that it feels like an honor to be a part of this inaugural, historic moment in time and in education in the city of Detroit.”

How you can support Marygrove Early Childhood Education Center: The center is accepting applications. Visit the Starfish Family Services website to complete an interest form. 

The School at Marygrove will teach K-12 students a strong commitment to social justice

Michelle White. TBoydston Photography LLC.Michelle White has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering as well as a Master of Science degree in Natural Sciences. She has worked in public education for over 25 years and has lived and worked in Detroit for 18 years. She has served as a classroom teacher, school principal, and district-level administrator, with a focus on new school design and development.

“The history of Marygrove College’s commitment to social justice and equity is connected to the education here at The School of Marygrove. Through our relationship and partnership with the University of Michigan, our curriculum is a project-based learning curriculum. Particularly in our areas of math, science, and social studies, [these subjects] utilize social justice topics for whatever it is that they are studying. In their engineering course, students are looking at businesses in our community. In a ninth-grade math class, students were studying gender pay gaps while also learning linear equations.” 

“When I think about the School at Marygrove, we have this commitment to social justice as well as engineering and design thinking. I envision our graduates as having a disposition of equity and the desire to fight for the disenfranchised, and they will also know how to solve problems creatively based in research, data, and applying human-centered design as a natural habit of mind to fight for the rights of everyone. They will also have a deep understanding, respect, and love for the city of Detroit and the communities that comprise it.”

“We also want to ensure that we are a part of this community. We have a student-led volunteer group that is working with local Black-owned businesses to learn how we can help support them.”  

How you can support The School at Marygrove: Spread the word. The School is accepting applications for 9th and 10th grade. Join the movement, if you are a business or organization and may have resources that could benefit the school. Reach out to Ms. White via the school website

‘The stellar leadership of Black women’

Racheal Allen was named a 2020 Change Maker by Channel 7 WXYZ Action News, Racheal Allen. TBoydston Photography LLC.for her previous work leading the Downtown Detroit Ambassador Program. 

A graduate of Marygrove College, Allen directs day-to-day operations and financial management of the 53-acre campus, while overseeing community engagement and partnership strategies. She leads the Conservancy’s continued efforts to engage residents and community leaders to continue the legacy of partnership between the campus and its neighbors. She also works closely with current partners and tenants to plan and coordinate future projects. 

“One of the things that has always struck me is the beauty of the campus. Even as our programming continues to develop, one of the things that I think shouldn’t change very much is the aesthetic of the campus, which is in my team’s purview. We work hard to maintain that integrity and be intentional in stewarding and respecting the grounds. We had to mitigate trees that may have been damaged, but then we integrated those same trees into the playscape at the early childhood education center. I truly believe that every student deserves to learn in a clean, beautiful, and safe space.” 

“I’m particularly proud of the leadership that is emerging from the Marygrove campus because it truly is reflective of the community. It reflects the stellar leadership of Black women, our partnership with DPSCD and Starfish, but specifically with myself, Michelle, and Celina is a dynamic one. It’s collaborative. We support each other as women, as professionals, as leaders in the community. This relationship is working so well and it speaks to the heart of what we are trying to accomplish with the entire P-20 initiative.” 

“The Cradle-to-Career concept is the idea of being able to educate a student through their entire educational spectrum. We’ve expanded that to include prenatal services and their journey every step of the way from elementary, middle, high school, and even their post-secondary options. It’s our desire that we have students that never have to leave this campus and that through our partnerships pathways are opened to our students that have never been available before.” 

“Michelle and Celina are lovely people, but what I love most is that they are women who are dedicated to serving their youth. They are some of the hardest-working and dedicated women I have ever met. They are constantly advocating for the absolute best for their students. The Conservancy is technically their landlord, but we are inspired to, with their help, give their students the best environment, equipment and partnerships.” 

How you can support The School at Marygrove: Stay in touch with the Marygrove Conservancy by signing up for their newsletter

This is part of a series supported by Marygrove Conservancy that will showcase the work the nonprofit organization is doing to preserve the legacy of Marygrove College and how it is serving Northwest Detroit and the city overall.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is a regular contributor and project editor for Model D. Formally Model D's Editor at Large, she is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.