What Do You DO All Day?
By Julia Putnam
This question, accompanied by a quizzical look, often greets members of the Boggs Educational Center project team when we reveal that we spend hours each day nestled in the attic of St. Peter’s Episcopal church, planning and developing a school. We get it. The process is taking longer than any of us expected which, of course, is one of the lessons we’ve taken away from the last four years—change takes time. And in those years, every disappointment and setback has provided a chance for us to deepen the capacity for our original intention: to develop a school that would nurture creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the well-being of their communities.
The crux of our work consists of taking theory and putting it into practice. When we asked to name the school for her, Grace Lee Boggs presented us with the challenge to think beyond what we even think is possible when it comes to school. Only then, she said, would we truly challenge the existing paradigm of school and create something new.
The theory behind the school is that learning and community are inextricably linked. The curriculum of the school is the community itself, and student work will be to learn academic skills from addressing the needs of the neighborhood. In theory, we will provide children with the tools they need to achieve ambitious goals and live lives of meaning. In theory, we will make Detroit a better place to live and grow our souls in the process. But, theory is not enough. We feel the weight of responsibility not only to Grace’s legacy, but also to the future of the children in our care, their families, and the future of Detroit. The execution of the vision must be equal to the vision itself.
And so what must a school look like every day in order to create an impeccable, powerful, and concrete day-to-day experience for students, teachers, families and community members? Concretizing that deliberate experience is what we do all day, all while navigating the tricky terrain of the existing educational structure, parent and community need and expectations, children’s developmental needs, and our own work/life balance.
The execution consists of 17 arms of the project that we keep track of via work plans (a detailed blueprint for what tasks need to be completed to reach our identified milestones in one major goal). Some examples of these arms are: Curriculum and Assessment, Community Outreach, Governance, Fundraising, Facility, Community Partners and Programs, Operations, and School Board Development. Every day, there is some task to complete on almost all of the work plans. We divide the work amongst the three of us and sometimes we ask for help from our board members.
We meet once a week to check in on our work, report progress, ask questions, and set more goals. These meetings help us stay accountable to the team and allow us to raise questions and discuss issues that come up during the week. We meet with our board members once a month to update them on our progress, open ourselves to deeper questions from people outside of our planning bubble, and help train them to take over board responsibilities once they become official school board members.
In the last year, we’ve written a comprehensive charter application that explains the need for our school in the community, along with our teaching framework, our daily schedule, school calendar, and organizational structure. We also applied for and received a grant from the WK Kellogg Foundation to design a food service that will meet the nutritional and spiritual needs of our students as well as a school garden that will provide aesthetic beauty to the neighborhood and provide an opportunity for science and social studies lessons. We want the space between the school and the garden to be so fluid that it’s hard to tell where the school ends and the garden begins.
We also designed and implemented a summer internship so that we could engage with the Islandview Village community, where the school will be located. During the internship, we hosted a community conversation at the proposed school site to reimagine the community’s role in schools. (Read more at:
In short, we plan: We strategize. We dream. We ask questions. We visit schools that model what we want to see in Detroit and then we dream some more. We collaborate with organizations like SEMIS (Southeastern Michigan Environmental Stewardship Initiative) and Detroit Future Schools to design our curriculum and teacher evaluation models. We beg experienced educators to listen to our ideas and offer feedback. We talk with others about what we’re doing and practice presenting our vision in a compelling way. We argue and debate and disagree. We practice making collaborative decisions and power sharing via consensus. When we experience obstacles, we vent and regroup. We roll up our sleeves and resolve not to give up.
It isn’t easy to re-imagine school, especially in the existing paradigm. We are constantly challenging our own thinking and we know that the school we’re planning, if done correctly, will challenge the thinking of others. It is not just a school; it’s a new idea of how to be with one another.
It’s what we do all day. And it’s exhilarating.