ACLU alleges Michigan school district violated students’ ‘right to learn to read’

In the first case of its kind, the American Civil Liberties Union is charging that the state of Michigan and a Detroit area school district have failed to adequately educate children, violating their “right to learn to read” under an obscure state law.

The ACLU class-action lawsuit, to be filed Thursday, says hundreds of students in the Highland Park School District are functionally illiterate.

“None of those adults charged with the care of these children . . . have done their jobs,” said Kary L. Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. “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 a right to learn to read.”

The complaint, to be filed in state court in Wayne County, is based on a 1993 state law that says if public school students are not proficient in reading, as determined by tests given in grades 4 and 7, they must be provided “special assistance” to bring them to grade level within a year.

But at Highland Park, a three-school district bordering Detroit, most of the struggling students are years behind grade level and never received the kind of assistance required by law, the ACLU said.

Sara Wurfel, press secretary for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), said it was “impossible and imprudent to comment on a lawsuit that we haven’t been served or read yet.”

But she said the administration is working to address “a long overdue fiscal and academic crisis that was crippling the district, shortchanging its students and threatening the schools’ very existence. Everything we have done and are doing is to ensure that the kids of Highland Park schools get the education they need and deserve.”

Efforts to reach the Highland Park School District were unsuccessful. The published telephone number at the district headquarters was busy all Wednesday afternoon.

One student in the Highland Park district, a 14-year-old boy named Quentin, just finished seventh grade. Quentin, whose mother asked that his last name be withheld, reads at a first-grade level, according to an expert hired by the ACLU.

When asked to compose a letter to Snyder to describe his school, Quentin misspelled his own name, writing, “My name is Quemtin . . . and you can make the school gooder by geting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.”

[Click here for samples of writing from Highland Park students who are plaintiffs in the suit, including Quentin.]

During the school year that just finished, Quentin was enrolled in both a regular language arts class and Read 180, an online program designed to help struggling readers. It was up to Quentin to decide whether to attend his regular class or participate in Read 180 each day, according to the complaint. This was the first year Highland Park used the Read 180 program, according to the ACLU.

In the Read 180 classroom, “the teacher did not provide any instruction while the students read books on their own, or in groups, or completed self-directed work on the computer. . . . The longest writing assignment Quentin had to complete this year was a three paragraph summary of a book,” according to the lawsuit.

“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 in an interview. “A couple of our plaintiffs were put in the Reading 180 program, but it’s not been made available to every kid. There’s no individualized assessment of what they need, how they’re doing or monitoring of what’s going on.”

The district’s record-keeping is shoddy and student files are incomplete, making it nearly impossible to identify which students need remedial help, the complaint alleges.

The most recent state test scores for Highland Park schools show that 65 percent of fourth-graders and 75 percent of seventh-graders were not proficient in reading.

In addition to its academic problems, the Highland Park district is facing severe financial turmoil. Once home to Chrysler and a stable, working-class community, Highland Park’s fortunes have been spiraling downward. The district faces an estimated $11.3 million deficit and a 58 percent enrollment drop since 2006.

“There’s been a demise of manufacturing and exit of the taxpayer base,” Moss said. “What’s left is a high-poverty population of kids in a district that’s struggling with any range of problems.”

Highland Park is one of three Michigan school districts that have been taken over by an emergency manager appointed by the governor. Last month, the emergency manager, Joyce Parker, announced that all three Highland Park schools will be turned over to a charter school operator in September while she restructures the district’s debt. The charter operator has yet to be named. Parker said that once finances have stabilized, the district can return to a traditional model of public schools.

The lawsuit comes at a time of growing concern across the nation about early literacy. Educators say students who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times as likely as proficient readers to drop out of high school. And if those students are poor, they are 13 times as likely to drop out.

“There’s more and more emphasis on this and more and more knowledge that you have to start much earlier,” said Elizabeth Burke Bryant of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a national effort to promote early literacy.

States such as Colorado have recently passed laws that require schools to take extra steps to detect and correct early literacy problems. Michigan appears to be the only state that requires schools to intervene with extra help at grades 4 and 7 to bring a student to grade level within a year.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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