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Students go back to class as plaintiffs against their school system

Eight Highland Park school students returned to classes this week as plaintiffs against a school system they say has failed them. Their families and the ACLU say the school district and the state have  denied them the right to learn to read.

“It’s heartbreaking every day when you get up and people look in your face and say: oh, that’s that lady, her daughter can’t read,” says Michelle Johnson. Her daughter is heading into the 12th grade. But she can only read at about a fourth-grade level.

Johnson says she noticed her daughter struggling a few years ago, and wanted her to repeat the eighth grade.

“They wouldn’t do that,” she says. “They moved her onto the 9th, she failed some of her classes, they still passed her onto the 10th.”

And attorneys for the ACLU say Johnson’s daughter – who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit – isn’t alone. They point to state data showing that only a quarter of sixth and seventh graders here in this district passed the state’s reading exam last year.

“I this is one of the most important lawsuits in the history of the country when it comes to basic educational rights,” says Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney representing Johnson’s daughter and the other 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 - have to get 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 there are children throughout Michigan and throughout the country whose ZIP code is determining their educational opportunities.”

No one from the school district concedes failures when it comes to remedial education. And to muddy the waters further, there’s been a huge upheaval in the administration. The state has appointed an emergency manager to fix the district’s troubled finances. 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 going forward, any student who does poorly on state exams or the district’s own assessments will get prompt remedial help. 

“What we’re going to do is press the restart button, and when students come in we are going to gather baseline data, and then go from there,” says Williams.

Mark Rosenbaum of the ACLU says those are great promises, but “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 this lawsuit. They argue in court filings that the state constitution gives local districts full control over schools.

But to plaintiffs, that smacks of trying to have it both ways. They argue that when the state took over the district, it was a drastic step – and an acknowledgement that the school system has failed here -  and that it is the state’s job to fix it.

The judge in the case has scheduled a hearing for next month.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Radio’s Director of Enterprise & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.