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Eight Detroit-area public school students returning to classes this week are plaintiffs against a school system they say has failed them.
Their families and the American Civil Liberties Union say that the Highland Park school system has denied the students the right to learn to read, and that the state has a responsibility to fix that.
Michelle Johnson has five children in Highland Park schools. Her daughter is heading into the 12th grade, but can read at only about the fourth-grade level.
"It's heartbreaking every morning when you get up and people look in your face and say, 'Oh, that's that lady, her daughter can't read,' " Johnson says.
Poor Reading Scores
Johnson says she noticed her daughter struggling a few years ago and wanted her to repeat the eighth grade. But the school wouldn't do that, she says.
"They moved her onto the ninth. She failed some of her ninth-grade classes, [and] they still passed her onto the 10th," she says.
Attorneys for the ACLU say Johnson's daughter is not alone. They point to Michigan state data showing that only one-quarter of the Highland Park district's sixth- and seventh-graders passed the state's reading exam last year.
"I think this is one of the most important lawsuits in the history of the country when it comes to basic educational rights," says Mark Rosenbaum, who is representing the plaintiffs through the ACLU.
The lawsuit accuses the state of failing to enforce a Michigan law that says students who do poorly on standardized reading tests — which are given in the fourth or seventh grades — must receive remedial help to bring them up to grade level. Rosenbaum is asking a judge to enforce that law.
"The fact is that this is the first 'right to read' case, but it won't be the last," he says. "The reality is that there are children throughout Michigan and throughout the country whose ZIP code is determining their educational opportunities."
Pressing 'The Restart Button'
No one from the school district will concede that the system has failed when it comes to remedial education. To further muddy the waters, there's been a huge upheaval in the district's administration. The state has appointed an emergency manager to fix the district's troubled finances. And this summer, that state appointee turned the entire district over to a charter-school operator.
The charter company, The Leona Group, has now been added as a defendant in the lawsuit. While Leona Group officials won't talk directly about the court case, Pamela Williams, the superintendent of this new charter school system, says things will change. She promises that any student who does poorly on state exams or the district's own assessments going forward will get prompt remedial help.
"What we're going to do is to press the restart button," Williams says. "And when students come in, we are going to gather baseline data, and then go from there."
Those are great promises, says Rosenbaum. But, he says, "that's a long way from saying the resources, the wherewithal, the capabilities and capacity are present in this charter."
For their part, state officials are declining to comment on the lawsuit. They argue in court filings that the state constitution gives local districts full control over schools.
But the plaintiffs say that position smacks of trying to have it both ways. They argue that the state taking over the district was a drastic step — and an acknowledgement that the school system has failed here. And that, they say, means it's the state's job to fix it.
The judge has scheduled a hearing for next month.