Pop-up centers will help Detroit district parents determine if their children are exempt from new reading law

The Detroit Public Schools Community District is opening multiple pop-up centers in its schools to make it easier for parents of struggling third-grade readers to keep their children from being held back under Michigan’s tough new reading law.

The district recently sent letters home about the upcoming opening of the pop-up centers and other ways parents can apply to exempt their children from being held back. The locations of the centers are still to be determined.

The pop-up centers are part of an overall strategy in the district to educate parents about the law, which requires school officials this year to hold back third-graders whose test scores indicate they’re reading below grade level. 

Many studies demonstrate that grade retention can have harmful effects on a student’s social and behavioral development, and retention doesn’t help improve a student’s academic performance in the long term. One study also found that boys were twice as likely to be held back than girls, and students of color were disproportionately impacted by retention.

Previously, the district has held information sessions so parents can understand how the law can impact their children. The district also has provided parents with materials they can use at home to help their children with literacy. And a program that seeks volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring was launched more than a year ago.

The letters about the pop-up centers come less than two months before state testing begins, and as officials as high as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sound the alarm about the law’s impact. During her State of the State speech last month, Whitmer announced she is working with philanthropic organizations to educate parents, targeting school districts in low-income and urban areas who may be hit hardest by retention.

“This punitive law could be a nightmare for families, and this initiative will give parents and students the resources and support they need to get through it,” Whitmer said in her speech. 

It’s estimated that about 20%, or nearly 800 district students, would have been held back last year if the rules had been in place then. That’s well above the 4% of third-graders typically held back in a given year. 

Statewide, between 4% and 5% of students are expected to be identified for retention.

At the pop-up centers, staff will help parents fill out surveys to see if their child qualifies for an exemption and can request an exemption on site, the district said. Students who have a learning disability, English language learners with less than three years of language instruction, and students who’ve already repeated the third grade can qualify for an exemption. 

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has repeatedly spoken out against the law, citing research that shows forcing students to repeat a grade damages their confidence in learning. 

“We firmly believe that student retention is a decision that should be made between the school leader, teacher, and family,” Vitti wrote in the letter. 

Jametta Lilly, who heads up the Detroit Parent Network, a parent advocacy group, said many parents aren’t aware of the law and how it works — which is why her organization has worked hard over the last year to help educate them. She said a parent’s role in shaping a child’s learning is often underestimated, but is critically important. 

“A parent is a child’s first teacher,” she said. 

The group has hosted parent-led workshops on early literacy and the third-grade reading law.  They’ve also partnered with Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization focused on improving education, to create a web portal with resources to help promote reading. The two groups also made toolkits that educate parents on the law, a guidebook on how to work with teachers to support their child’s learning, and a list of local summer reading programs.

“Holding our kids back never helps them,” Lilly said. “We need to have a whole community focus on improving literacy, not just schools.”