ACLU files unprecedented class action law suit against Michigan school district

Highland Park High School (Credit: Educationnews.org)

The ACLU has filed an unprecedented class action law suit claiming that various Michigan state entities have failed to meet the requirements of providing remedial reading strategies to struggling readers. The named defendants in the suit are the State of Michigan, the State Board of Education, Michigan Department of Education, Michael Flanagan, Michigan’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joyce Parker, Emergency Manager for the Highland Park School District, and the Highland Park School District (HPSD) itself.

The lawsuit seeks the “immediate implementation of of MCL 380.1278(8), which provides every regular education student who does not show proficiency on the reading portion of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), the State’s standardized reading proficiency test, in 4th or 7th grade shall receive ‘special assistance reasonably expected to enable the pupil to bring his or her reading skills to grade level within 12 months.’”

The complaint presents an incredibly tragic picture of the educational conditions and opportunities with HPSD. As alleged in the suit, two thirds of all students do not have the basic literacy skills necessary to meet ground-level standards of proficiency. According to the State of Michigan’s own data for HPSD, only 35% of 4th grade students in HPSD scored “Proficient” or higher on the MEAP reading test and only 25% of 7th grade students scored proficient or higher. Despite these dismal results, HPSD has violated MCL 3801278(8) by failing to provide the state-mandated remedial reading programs necessary to address these deficits.

According to the suit, despite these horrible numbers, HPSD has simply refused to provide its students the state-mandated remedial reading programs which would help address these deficits. When Michigan’s Department of Education was sent questions to answer prior to the filing of the class action, one specific question asked the district to provide documents relating to the reading intervention programs designed to meet the requirements of MCL 380.1278(8) or otherwise provid[ing] remedial reading instruction, its official response was, “To the best of my belief and knowledge, the Michigan Department of Education does not possess the documents you requested.”

The lawsuit alleges critical deficiencies in HPSD’s instruction and facilities. In the suit, it is alleged that there are insufficient textbooks to allow students to take books home, all copies must be made at teacher’s expense, there is inadequate heating to the extent that students must wear parkas and mittens in the weather, there exists inadequate academic support since the schools have neither counselors nor vice principals, the bathrooms are not properly maintained, often having walls smeared with feces, the library is inadequately supplied with books and students are not allowed to check the ones that are there out.

HPSD is a small school district in close proximity to Detroit. The city of Highland Park has 11,776 residents, the vast majority of whom are African American. Of the 973 students enrolled in HBSD, 99.59% are African American. Additionally, 82% qualify for Federal Free or Reduced Lunch program. In other words, this is a poor, African American town located next to Detroit.

The most heartbreaking thing detailed in this suit are the comments of the children named in the suit. The students were given a written prompt to asking them to tell the Governor about the school. Following are a few responses. Fourth grader D.I. wrote, My name is (deleted) this is what I what to do when I what grow up at Bussness laddy And can you give my a favorite By helping me to work my way up to keep up Jobs. C.M., a 6th grader, wrote, Well we can have playtime. And write lot of things. And read books. And have fun. The state goverment will come and come to the school. Tell the Teacher what to do! To help. A final example comes from F.C., a 7th grader, wrote, Hi My is (deleted) and i go the school at Barber focus and i would like you to make Better reading Books and cleaner water and supply for the classroom.

Almost as heartbreaking are the tales of the students about quality of instruction they receive in reading. L.M. reports that he was enrolled in a class titled “Virtual Learning English Arts.” In this class L.M. answered questions on the computer for the entire course. While he and his classmates worked on the computer, his teacher graded papers or completed other tasks on her computer. The teacher never lectured or used the blackboard for instruction. F.C. reports that he took a class called Read 180. The class contained 30 students who were split into two groups. While one group read aloud, the other group accessed self-directed work on the computer. The teacher never provided direct instruction.

If the ’s suit is successful, Michigan and HPSD will need to institute quality remedial reading programs in this small, urban district.

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