Students in the Highland Park School District
in Michigan are consistently failing at one of the foundational skills necessary for a productive academic and professional life – the ability to read. With a concerning number of students within the district reading well below grade level, the ACLU has decided to take matters in its own hands. The organization has filed eight lawsuits against the school district and the state of Michigan on behalf of students and their parents. The charge? Failure to teach children to read.
Obscure Law Fuels Lawsuit Fire
According to the Detroit News
, the ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court. The lawsuit alleges that the school district and the state have failed to do their job in ensuring students within the Highland Park School District can read at grade level
. The lawsuit further asserts that although students are supposed to be provided with “special assistance” if they don’t make grade level proficiency in grades four and seven, these students were not given any additional help to bring their reading skills
up to par.
The lawsuit calls on an obscure law on the Michigan books known as the “right to read” provision. This law enacted by the state legislature in 1993 states, “A pupil who does not score satisfactorily on the 4th or 7th grade MEAP reading test shall be provided special assistance reasonably expected to enable the pupil to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months.”
In the lawsuit, the ACLU alleges that hundreds of students in the Highland Park school district are “functionally illiterate,” according to the Seattle Times
. Many of these students are years behind grade level and have never been given any sort of intervention to address their reading deficiencies.
“None of those adults charged with the care of these children…have done their jobs,” Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, told the Seattle Times. “The Highland Park School District is among the lowest-performing districts in the nation, graduating class after class of children who are not literate. Our lawsuit…says that if education is to mean anything, it means that children have the right to learn to read.”
The Illiteracy Problem in Highland Park
According to Click on Detroit
, the ACLU cites statistics that show as many as 65 percent of fourth-grade students are not reading at grade level, and 87 percent are not proficient in math. The organization used test scores from the 2011-2012 MEAP to support their claims. In addition, the ACLU asserts that the numbers get worse as students progress into higher grades. By seventh grade, 75 percent of students are not reading at grade level, and 93 percent are not proficient in math.
By the time a student hits 11th
grade – the time when students should begin thinking about college or career choices
– 90 percent of all students failed reading, 97 percent failed math
and 94 percent failed writing
. The school district is one of the lowest-performing in the state, and it may be at the bottom of the list nationally as well. In addition, the ACLU cites additional problems with the Highland Park schools, including dirty bathrooms, insufficient supply of textbooks and severe staff shortages.
“I can tell you unequivocally that there is not a case in our collective history, which has so single-mindedly addressed a school system in such dire and tragic states,” Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney and law professor at the University of Michigan, told the Huffington Post
. “These are the sort of results we associate in the Deep South in the 30’s and 40’s. These are the sorts of results we associate today with impoverished Third World nations.”
Parents Applaud Move by ACLU
While the move by the ACLU appears radical from the outside looking in, some parents of students within the district are applauding the bold move by the agency. Michelle Jenks, the parent of a student in the district, told Click on Detroit, “I have an 11th grade daughter who is 16 years old and reads at the third grade level. The district is not where it needs to be.”
Michelle Johnson also has a daughter who attends Highland Park schools. Johnson told the Huffington Post that while her daughter is entering her junior year of high school, she is reading anywhere from five to seven grades below where she should be.
“My daughter is ashamed of where she is,” Johnson said. “She wouldn’t speak out until the other day to tell that she couldn’t do the work or read and write.”
Moss told the Seattle Times that students in need of help are provided with little or no resources.
“Kids are getting plopped in front of computers
with no teacher in the classroom or the teacher is just sitting there, not engaged,” Moss said. “A couple of our plaintiffs were put in the Reading 180 program, but it’s not been available to every kid. There’s no individualized assessment of what they need, how they’re doing or monitoring of what’s going on.”
Budget Shortfalls Contribute to Problem
One of the biggest concerns with the Highland Park School District, according to district officials and the Governor’s office, is the fact that the district’s budget deficit has grown from $6.6 million to more than $11 million in recent years. An emergency manager has been appointed by Governor Rick Snyder to address the district’s budget concerns. Recently, plans were announced to convert the district to a private academy system operated by a charter school organization, according to the Huffington Post.