Boggs School in Detroit and Place-Based Education

Detroit Public Schools has lost over 100,000 students in the past 20 years, a number to be expected when one considers that the city of Detroit itself has lost almost 275,000 residents in just 16 years. The loss of population means fewer taxpayers to fund DPS, causing the district to officially declare bankruptcy in 2016. With over 200 neighborhood school closings, many Detroit parents are worried about the future of their children’s education, choosing to leave the city and add to the growing statistic of Detroit’s population decline. One charter school in Detroit is aiming to change that.

Founded in September 2013, The James and Grace Lee Boggs School opened on Detroit’s east side, near the intersection of McDougall and Mack. According to the school’s website, “The mission of the Boggs School is to nurture creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the well-being of their communities.” What does that mean? Julia Putnam, one of the founders of the school, says that the mission is inspired by the school’s namesake, Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs. In an article for Yes! Magazine, Putnam writes, “Grace’s position is that children are most intellectually and physically engaged when they are involved in the struggle to revitalize their community.” Putnam herself is a product of Detroit Public Schools.

Putnam attended Renaissance High School and met Grace Lee Boggs when the activist came to speak about her volunteer program Detroit Summer, a place where Detroit youth could become engaged and help their community by maintaining urban gardens, painting murals and rebuilding abandoned homes, among other projects. Putnam was the first person to enroll for Detroit Summer, and credits her experience in the program for the idea of “place-based education” in the Boggs School today. Place-based education, or PBE, emphasizes hands-on learning through active participation in volunteer projects for the school and local community.

Students at the Boggs School take field trips to places in the community like The Heidelberg Project, grow vegetables in the school garden and paint murals on the building. This is all similar to what Putnam did in Detroit Summer, and it is what sets apart the Boggs School. In an interview with Mark Larson of American Stories Continuum, Putnam says, “The concept of place-based schooling is so important, because actually the school system today is a mechanism for getting kids out of the community. If they succeed in school, they leave Detroit, and that’s so destructive. It’s destructive to every fundamental relationship between elders and young people.”

PBE is more than simply teaching children to garden; it is about creating the future leaders of Detroit. “I want a kid to graduate from our school and be able to look around and be like, ‘I’ve been in this neighborhood forever, I know exactly what businesses will work. I know exactly what the needs are in this community, but also in Detroit in general.’ I want to graduate the next mayors, the next city council people, the next business owners of Detroit,” said Putnam in an interview with Michigan Radio. The Boggs School is invested in its community, and the community is invested back. The school currently serves grades K through seven, but is expanding next year to open up an eighth grade classroom.

Putnam’s own son, Henry, is enrolled in the school. On Henry’s first day of being enrolled, Putnam said, “I cried, walking away. I walked away knowing that he was going to be fine but also thinking, ‘Wow, what a trusting thing I just did. What an amazing thing.’”