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ACLU: State fails HP youth

Highland Park parent Michelle Johnson, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit against the state of Michigan, says students deserve a fair education. ZENOBIA JEFFRIES PHOTO

Civil liberties attorneys files complaint for students’ ‘right to read’

By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — The State of Michigan is in violation of state law for its failure to ensure students of the Highland Park School District (HPSD) read at grade level, according to a legal complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The civil liberties and civil rights organization is suing the state and its agencies, charged with overseeing education. HPSD is also named in the complaint.

“Highland Park (schools) is not a functional school system … it is a separate and unequal system,” said Mark Rosenbaum ACLU attorney and University of Michigan law professor who compared the conditions to that of the Jim Crow South.

Rosenbaum is one of several ACLU attorneys for eight plaintiffs on behalf of HPSD students and parents who filed the complaint in Wayne County Third Circuit Court July 12 against the State of Michigan, Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Superintendent Michael Flanagan and HPSD.

When asked for comment, state officials offered a statement: “The Michigan Department of Education has been counseled by our state Attorney General’s office to not comment on pending litigation.”

The civil rights complaint, which states that just under 1,000 HP students, grades K-12, have been denied basic literacy skills and reading proficiency, is the first of its kind, according to the team of attorneys.

No case has addressed a school system in such dire straits, Rosenbaum said.

The failing district, among the lowest-achieving in the nation, is at the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools in the state. It could have been one of many in Michigan, says ACLU Executive Director Kary Moss, who referred to the HP case as the “canary in the coal mine.”

State data shows that less than 10 percent of the district’s students in grades 3-8 are proficient in reading and math, based on Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) scores. And 11th grade students taking the Michigan Merit Exam (MME) also score less than 10 percent proficiency in reading and math. The graduation rate for HPSD is less than 40 percent compared to the state’s 75 percent. Nearly all HPSD students, over 90 percent, are not college ready. The dropout rate is over 45 percent.

The ACLU argues that the low test scores and reading evaluations prove the state and HPSD have violated the students’ right to read, as set forth by state laws, which require the state to provide “additional assistance” to children who are not reading at grade level.

Michigan legislators enacted what the attorneys call the Right to Read Act [MCL 380.1278(8)] that reads: “A (student) who does not score satisfactorily on the 4th or 7th grade (MEAP) reading test shall be provided special assistance reasonably expected to enable the (student) to bring his or her reading skills to grade level with 12 months.”

This provision in the law, according to the ACLU, enacts the state’s constitutional mandate that “the legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law.” Therefore, the lawsuit claims this places the “duty to educate our youth on the state.”

“What’s different about this case is we have focused on the student’s right to read,” Moss said during a press conference following the filing. “The capacity to learn is deeply rooted in the ability to achieve literacy. A child who cannot read will be disenfranchised in our society and economy for a lifetime.”

Moss says all the state’s “reform” efforts have yet to address the deficiencies in the district.

“None of the reforms deal with the deficiencies,” she said, adding that the case “is not about being pro- or anti-charter … or pro- or anti-emergency managers,” she said.

HPSD, with two K-8 schools and a high school and a deficit of about $10 million, was placed under emergency management in January. It has since had two EMs. Joyce Parker, who has been with the district for a little over a month, was not available for comment.

Former EM Jack Martin was named CFO for the city of Detroit in May.

Plans to absorb the district into the Detroit Public Schools system have been reported, as well as an announcement to place the district under a charter operator beginning Fall 2012.

“You can’t have academic reform when there are no books in the classroom,” Moss said.

Moss, who says there is a collective responsibility for the condition of HP schools, says the complaint is not about finger pointing, it’s about having quality resources — including books, teachers and curricula for HP students.

HP parent of six children, Michelle Johnson, who attended the press conference, has five students in the district. Her 11th grade daughter, who she says was too ashamed to attend the media conference, reads at a 4th grade level. Johnson, a life-long Highland Park resident, says the district is worse than she’s ever seen.

Johnson, who visits her children’s school five days a week, says she has always spoken out about the failings of HPSD. According to her, her concerns fell on deaf ears, until now.

“I’ve been to parent meetings, school board meetings, I’ve sat in classrooms,” Johnson says.

“I’ve been in the district all my life, the kids are misunderstood. They don’t have books, they don’t have counselors. …We want a fair education; I don’t think that is too much to ask.”

Moss says the state of Michigan gets a grade of “F” when it comes to HPSD.

“Public officials have the data, the state knows (the conditions of HP schools) and if they don’t, shame on them,” she said. “The school district may have a deficit, but there’s a lot of money there and the question is: How is that money being spent?”

Contact Zenobia Jeffries at

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