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Walking into The James & Grace Lee Boggs School, it's hard not to feel inspired. There are whimsical, handmade paper clouds hanging from the hallway ceiling. Bright, colorful faces of children painted by a muralist cover much of the walls. The top corner of the wall near the school's office reads, "We must believe we have the power within us to create the world anew." It's a quote from one of the school's namesakes, longtime social activist and Detroiter Grace Lee Boggs.
"We think of (the kids) as 'solutionaries,'" says principal Julia Putnam, who was a driving force in creating the school. The word is on the back of the students' school T-shirts, she notes. "They're the ones that are going to help create our future."
Housed in the old Sophie Wright Settlement building on Mitchell Street on Detroit's east side, The Boggs School, which teaches students in grades K-4, opened its doors on Sept. 3 after five long years of planning.
The very idea of this school first sprouted from Putnam's experience volunteering at Detroit Summer, Grace Lee and James Boggs' youth gardening program. Its foundational roots are about being a "community-based school that serves the neighborhood," she says.
"The way we think about learning is different in that obviously we want kids to be academically beyond proficient, to excel academically – but also that that learning doesn't just come from books," Putnam says, noting that the school believes the neighborhood and its people "are textbooks," too. "We want the kids to learn from them – and really foster (the idea that) our city and our neighborhoods really have something to offer, and that there's something here that we can learn from and help us grow."
Spark of inspiration
When Putnam was a Renaissance High School student in Detroit in the early 1990s, she was getting good grades – but there was something missing.
"I was going to high school, academically doing well, but not happy because I looked at Detroit and it felt very much like home, but everyone who talked about it talked about it in a really hopeless way," she says, "like it will never be good and what's wrong with this place – and the best of Detroit has come and gone. And I thought 'Well, what does that mean for me?'"
But one day, a friend came up to her and told her about Detroit Summer, a youth program that activists James and Grace Lee Boggs started. The pair even visited Renaissance to talk about it. Putnam was struck.
So much that, in 1992, the summer before her junior year, she signed up to help – making her the first person to enlist to volunteer with the program.
"It really changed my life, because I felt as if they were calling upon the best part of myself – the person who wanted to make a difference that had never been called upon in my education."
She says Grace Lee Boggs and the adult volunteers of Detroit Summer asked her to do more than what she'd always been asked to do – which was "to get A's and be obedient." Instead, they asked her, "What do you think is going to turn Detroit around?"
"I mean, big questions that I was thinking about, but no one ever asked me to have an opinion about," Putnam says.
Principal Julia Putnam
She went on to attend Michigan State University, the University of Detroit Mercy and Wayne State University, where she earned a teaching certificate. Along the way, Putnam stayed involved with Detroit Summer for about 10 years, moving up to be a youth coordinator until she started her career. She taught in Detroit at Longfellow Middle School, Central High School, and University Prep Middle School – plus she was involved with the InsideOut literary arts program for two years.
"I think that's what I learned most from Detroit Summer, is that kids really want to be useful and are already thinking about things that we don't give them credit for," Putnam says, adding that this lesson "informed" her as a teacher. And yet, she realized, "That's not what was being asked of me as a teacher – to call upon that from students. And that didn't feel good."
Putnam says Boggs encouraged her to talk to other educators, and she started attending Freedom School meetings at The Boggs Center. There, she and a like-minded group had "philosophical" chats about starting a new kind of school. The seed was cast.
They considered: "Who's going to be that person in their graduation gown – what do we want them to know, what do we want to say that we taught them, what kind of person are they?" Putnam says. "We all just kind of planned backwards from there."
Over the five years she worked on creating The Boggs School, Putnam adds, the developing team shrunk to two people, then grew to three about three years ago.
Searching for a home
For three years, the group hunted for a place to plant their school. Putnam describes it as "the longest, hardest, most grueling struggle." They searched in north Corktown – and even found a spot on the east side that ended up a bust, she says.
At one point, they even considered renting land and trailers, just so they could open for a first year. But the crew was sure about two things. They wanted to be near Grace Lee Boggs, on the east side. And they wanted to make a difference.
"We've always been intentional about wanting to be in Detroit and … in a community that could be better because of our presence," Putnam says.
Finally, a chance tip sealed the deal. Boggs' executive director, Amanda Rosman, met the director of Franklin-Wright Settlements, a long-time human-service agency in Detroit, at a gathering. Why didn't they check out the Sophie Wright Settlement, the source asked?
It was perfect. It's not only about a mile away from where Boggs still resides, but it has strong ties to the community because of the services the settlement provided to nearby residents in the past.
"Just the neighborhood memories of the place are so cool. Especially since our whole intention is to be a community-based school," Putnam says. "We had no idea that we would be in a space that had this history of serving the neighborhood. (It) feels very synchronistic and beautiful."
In about seven to eight weeks, with the help of volunteers, they transformed and renovated the building from one big space into a real, functioning school.
"Every time we put out the call, we had at least 10 people show up who were just eager," Putnam says. "I mean, because we've been planning it for five years, people have been really excited to see it emerge and actually coming to fruition, and lots of people really wanted to be involved in helping us survive. So it has been a labor of love and community."
A dream realized
Since that first day of school, Putnam says the feedback has been positive.
"I didn't know that the kids would feel so welcome so quickly," she says. Putnam notes students have even tried to come to the school before it's open for the day. She says they've heard stories of "kids feeling really happy" and saying, "This is the best school we've ever been to."
"It's rewarding, but it's also surprising," Putnam says of the success thus far. She always felt kids and families would fall in love Boggs, too – "I just thought it would take time to build it. And the fact that it's been so immediate … and the families can feel immediately when they come in like, 'Something's different here, this feels good,'" she says, "that's a real testament, I think, to the work we've done. I'm proud of it."
It's a fitting tribute to its namesakes, too – Grace Lee Boggs and her husband, James Boggs, who died in 1993.
"When we asked to name the school after her, she said, 'Yes, with one challenge – and that is you must think beyond what you even believe is possible,'" Putnam recalls. "She's like, 'We've all be indoctrinated as to what school is, and we'll just recreate exactly what we're resisting if we don't think beyond what we know to be true.'"
Boggs also stressed that she wanted the school to be intergenerational – which is where their volunteers come in. Even Putnam's mom volunteers at the school.
Putnam maintains a relationship with Boggs, who is now 98 years old, and says she's "like a grandma" to her. Boggs even came by the school to see it, and Putnam says she was "ecstatic."
Marisol Teachworth, programming director at The Boggs School, notes that the school is unique in that they "really seriously think about the whole person and how we can nurture our students here.
"We're thinking about children and thinking about people in different ways," she says, "and when we talk about when students move on to the next phase of their life – they're 17, 18 years old – what kind of people are they?"
Of course, academics are key, she adds. "But also, just what type of a person are you and what are you going to be contributing to your community and beyond?"
The very question Putnam asked herself as a teen.
Now, as principal of a school with that vision, she hopes to see it blossom into a place where kids can walk or bike to, as they're "able to say hello to neighbors by name."
Fittingly, her staff is working to promote that sense of community by building – in the Detroit Summer spirit – a school garden with the help of Earthworks' Urban Farm Growing Healthy Kids program. With the group's outreach coordinator, Boggs is exploring its neighborhood's needs, hoping to figure out how to serve them with this and other projects.
"I don't know what's going to happen, but I feel like we're creating an opportunity for kids to really feel of use – and really feel as if they can make a difference," Putnam says, "not when they graduate, but from the time that they're 5. What will come of that? I don't know, but I suspect that it's really powerful."