With Michigan’s third-grade reading law looming, parents fear majority of Detroit youth will be held back

Thousands of Detroit children are in danger of being held back a year if they can’t read well enough by third grade, the consequence of a new state literacy law.

And educators and advocates are warning that too many parents don’t know what’s coming.

“I would estimate that 75 percent of parents don’t know about the third-grade reading law,” said Jeffrey Robinson, principal of the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school on Detroit’s west side.

“We have to do everything we can to get the word out,” said Robinson, who has been traveling around Detroit urging parents to get informed and prepared for the change. “We have to get involved now and do anything we can to get the proficiency level up for the second-graders.”

He said parents should get involved with their children’s schools, get to know administrators, teachers, and staff, and become familiar with the law.

Robinson was a speaker at a bilingual legislative forum for parents last week at the Detroit Parent Network, among the first in a monthly series the nonprofit plans to bring parents up to speed about the legislation. Districts, schools, and community organizations are holding similar workshops and information sessions around the state.

The law, signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in October 2016, goes into effect during the 2019-20 school year. It’s likely to have an immense impact across Michigan, where few third-graders tested proficient or above on state exams in recent years. And it’s likely to have a disproportionate impact on low-income and urban areas, such as Detroit, where reading proficiency rates are the lowest in the state.

As a result, Detroiters who are aware of the law worry that massive numbers of children could be held back from fourth grade.

“It means 88 percent [could be held back], based on current proficiency analysis” of state English Language Arts test scores, said Jametta Lilly, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network. “That’s the number we’re looking at for Detroit Public Schools Community District.”

Michael McCall, 7, said he’s scared of the law.

“It’s not right. I’m not supposed to go down in grades,” said Michael, a rising second grader at Durfee Elementary-Middle School, who will be in the first class of third-graders subject to being held back. “I’m supposed to be going up in grades all the way to high school.”

Michael made the honor roll last year and received high marks in reading, so while the law may not hold him back, the same can’t necessarily be said for many of his classmates. Then again, just because he earned good grades doesn’t mean he can perform well on the exam.

He attended the Detroit Parent Network event with his grandmother, Edna Paul, who said she brought him to the meeting instead of allowing him to play outside with the other children who attended a back-to-school celebration that featured hot dogs, music, cotton candy, popcorn, and games.

“I need to give my grandson a head start on what’s going on, and not be blindsided by this [law],” she said.

Stacey Young, a 34-year-old Highland Park mother of five school-aged children, said the new law was “frightening.”

“This is systematically being done to children who live in poverty,” she told Chalkbeat at the parents network meeting.

“It’s just another way to hold us back, and this is simply another part of the school-to-prison pipeline,” Young said, referring to the higher percentage of youth from high-poverty areas who end up incarcerated.

She said she will read the text of the law, attend every information session available to her, and do what she can do to make sure other parents understand what could happen to children as a result.

Lacy Dawson, director of Michigan Voice, a group of nonprofits that works to educate and mobilize communities, said it’s important for Detroiters to understand the “opportunities in the law” so their kids “have a chance.” That includes school- and district-provided literacy coaches.

Around the state, districts and schools are holding similar meetings, said David Crim, spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, which represents about 140,000 teachers.

He said the law is concerning because the state allows districts and schools to create their own tests to determine whether students are proficient in reading. But their tests and scoring systems could be different than the state’s tests and scoring.

“That’s one of the problems we’ve had with this all along,” he said. “They give the districts the wide latitude all the way up to the very end,” then they may get hit with the “hammer of the law: If the state doesn’t believe a student is at grade level, based on a test the state mandates, then the student is held back.”

State officials are taking steps they hope will better prepare young readers. In a conference call with reporters, Michigan’s top literacy officials said the state is hiring literacy coaches for children to lay the groundwork for the new reading law.

“I’m frustrated that we can’t move faster, but I understand that things need to be in place,” said Amanda Price, chair of Gov. Snyder’s Pre-K12 Literacy Commission.

The education advocacy group 482Forward is preparing for the first stop of its “policy roadshow,” where its leaders plan to visit schools to talk about the policy in an “interactive and engaging way.”

Lilly, of the Detroit Parent Network, said part of her work is showing parents they don’t have to be scholars to teach their children.

“It’s important they get the message: You don’t have to be an astronaut to raise a scientist,” she said. “You don’t have to have a 12th-grade reading level to help your 2-year-old love reading and love books.”