Delighting Detroit Parents with an Edgy New School

Did you see Julia Putnam's guest blog entry on SheTroit?  Click HERE to access the link, or read the entire post below!


Delighting Detroit Parents with an Edgy New School

“I didn’t know this was here!  I never knew this Detroit existed!”

19-year-old Desmond Burkett was both shocked and delighted – with a tinge of regret as he said that.

Desmond is thoughtful and outgoing but dropped out of school in 10th grade defeated and angry over the crumbling condition of his Detroit school and the tools available to educate him.

It took Desmond’s emotional reaction to help me understand that all Detroit school children are presented with only one Detroit – a bombed-out shell of a town that we should all be striving to escape.

Making signs

Pivotal to the new school will be bringing together students with adult members of the community, working and playing.

 What if, as a young person, you only want it to be better?

That’s a main theme behind the creation of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, which we’ve been developing over the last five years.

The leadership team consists of three women – seasoned educators and leaders – including myself, who’ve work hard to heed the vision of the venerable activist and philosopher, Grace Lee Boggs that  “in order for schools to become the center of the community, the community itself with its needs and problems must become the curriculum of the school.”

Sebastian, Cass and Henry displaying their wild creative sides as they will at the Boggs School

Sebastian, Cass and Henry displaying their wild creative sides, an approach that will be encouraged at the Boggs School

And while doing that also learning from and honoring the strengths and assets that exist in our community.

How’s that for a guiding principle?

Putting it into Action

Our intention for this new cutting-edge school is to nurture creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the well being of their communities.

We believe that young people can learn from work that contributes to a better neighborhood – getting them involved in important community-centered events such as health and art fairs, urban gardens and oral histories.

As a community-based public charter school, it’s been vital to our  team to engage our community in the development and planning of the school. Last summer we hosted a diverse group of young people to help us with our community outreach. Desmond was one of the interns.

Grace and group

Gathered round 97-year-old Grace is the Boggs School’s project team (from left) Amanda Rosman, guest Maya Soetoro-Ng (Pres. Obama’s sister, who was visiting), Marisol Teachworth and myself.

Desmond’s internship offered him a rich window for seeing his neighborhood and community at its best. He volunteered at the Allied Media Conference, explored the urban farms in the city, and debated the ethical responsibilities of what it looks like to be a social justice leader.

He applied for the internship because he wanted to be a positive example for the kids in his neighborhood. Intrigued by the idea of a community-based school, he was eager to learn teaching strategies to engage his young neighbors.

We were sitting across the street from the Capuchin Soup Kitchen on Meldrum and St. Paul.  Desmond pointed to the Earthworks farm marveling at the lush green gardens.

“I used to live a few blocks from here when I was growing up,” he said in disbelief – having never been exposed as a student to the rich community life that offers tonic and balance to the devastation that was emphasized in his school days.

“I didn’t know this was here!  I never knew this Detroit existed!”

I spoke very similar words some 20 years ago, in 1992, when I joined Detroit Summer, a youth program designed by James and Grace Lee and other activists to rebuild, re-spirit, and redefine the city from the ground up.

My daughter, Lucie (here with me), will be attending the Boggs School this fall. I invite you to imagine your children in this innovative program.

My daughter, Lucie (here with me), will be attending the Boggs School this fall.

I didn’t know about the youth vigils downtown, a healing ritual that happened each week to commemorate the loss of young people to gun violence, organized by SOSAD (Save Our Sons and Daughters).

I didn’t know about Dorothy Garner, who organized her neighbors to march against crack houses on the east side and called themselves WePros (We the People Reclaim Our Streets).

I didn’t know about the Gardening Angels, elders from the south, who’d preserved their knowledge of growing food and shared it with the young people in the city.

… and countless other things I learned from my participation in Detroit Summer.

Thus began the birth of my involvement in helping to create the Boggs School.

Kids violins slider

Understanding and involving themselves in the arts is an important aspect of the Bogg’s School curricula

How can we create an educational experience that exposes young people to – and helps them learn from – both the devastation and the hope in Detroit?

What if learning led to solutions?  Place-based education connects rigorous academic content to the hands-on and healing work of community-building.

This way, young people will know first-hand the Detroit that’s existed in the past, the Detroit that exists in the present and the Detroit they are helping to exist in the future.


The Boggs School is accepting enrollment for grades Kindergarten to 4th grade.  To learn more about the school and to apply, visit our website, or call 313-655-2665, or write to me, Julia Putnam at [email protected]

There’s also a funding campaign to support our place-based field trips in the city: Reimagine Education in Detroit and Beyond.


About Julia

Love for Julia Putnam is surrounding people with all the ingredients that allow them to thrive. As a life-long Detroiter she sees that, for kids, it means showing them and letting them experience the beauty of being a productive and caring member in their community. And, importantly, discovering their passions in doing so. As a veteran Detroit teacher and scholar, she's seen the approaches that don't work in education - and is committed to delivering those that do work. In her experience, she has learned that the more a community rises up to support its youth, the more youth rise up to support their community. It's that simple - yet profound - and the platform for the new Boggs school opening in fall 2013. She is currently the organization’s Project Coordinator and will serve as Principal of the school. For more about Julia visit: