Tough times

An eighth-grader taught his classmates and other horrifying allegations in federal suit on Detroit schools

PHOTO: Public Counsel
Attorneys behind a new federal civil rights lawsuit meet with Osborn High School college advisor Andrea Jackson and student Jamarria Hall.

The federal civil rights lawsuit filed this week on behalf of a Detroit school kids isn’t likely to bring a quick fix to Detroit’s troubled schools. Even successful lawsuits can take years to wend their way through the courts.

But as Detroit tries to turn things around with a new school district, the suit paints a bleak picture of what officials are up against.

The 136-page complaint reveals allegations of condoms strewn on playgrounds, bathrooms leaking sewage into hallways, and students left to grieve without support. The suit claims that these conditions make learning difficult in Detroit schools — a conclusion that a recent study bears out.

Relying on statements from students and teachers, the suit describes alarming conditions at five schools, including three in the main city district: Osborn Academy of Mathematics, Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy and the Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody.

The suit also looks at two charter schools: Hamilton Academy, authorized by Detroit Public Schools, and Experiencia Preparatory Academy, which was authorized by Northern Michigan University until closing its doors in the face of financial problems last spring. It also mentions the Marion Law Academy, which is part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority.

Spokeswomen for the Detroit Public Schools Community District and the Education Achievement Authority did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did officials from Northern Michigan University or CS Partners, the management company that ran Experiencia.

The full complaint is worth a read. It outlines all of the ways that these schools haven’t measured up on standardized tests and other objective measures and offers some disturbing descriptive details. These are just some of them:

Teachers are too few and not skilled

  • At Hamilton … many students have a vocabulary of only a couple hundred words. Some students cannot even sound out letters.
  • At Cody MCH, many of the students struggle when called upon to read aloud, with some stumbling over even monosyllabic words. Yet the few instructors originally designated as reading interventionists, already insufficient in number, must cover teacher vacancies in other classrooms.
  • There is no meaningful training in literacy intervention available (at Cody MCH), even when requested by teachers … Plaintiff Jaime R. was in an English Language Arts course in ninth grade during which the class spent a large part of the year going paragraph by paragraph through a single novel, which has a third grade reading level.
  • At Marion Law Academy, inexperienced teachers “used Google to search the Internet for lesson plans the night before class, and many paid out of their own pockets to obtain lesson plans on”
  • The middle school science classes at Hamilton are currently taught by a paraprofessional who states that she does not understand the material and cannot lead classroom experiments.
  • In the 2015-16 school year, the seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher (at Hamilton) left several weeks after the start of school due to frustration with large class sizes and lack of support. He was temporarily replaced by a paraprofessional and then a special education teacher. Eventually, the highest performing eighth grade student was asked to take over teaching both seventh and eighth grade math, while the paraprofessional remained in the room to assist with classroom management. This student taught both math classes for a month.

English language learners are being left far behind

  • There were no certificated EL teachers for long stretches of Experiencia’s three years of operation. In the upper grades, about 20 of the approximately 80 students were English learners, but the English language class available to them covered the same elementary phrases for two years, regardless of the skill level of the individual students.
  • Plaintiff Esmeralda V.—who was more comfortable in Spanish than in English—was frequently called upon to assist her Spanish-speaking classmates by summarizing the material for them in Spanish. Some students relied on Google Translate in order to teach themselves English, although many EL students did not have access to the Internet outside of school.
  • At Cody MCH, there are multiple students who do not speak or write fluently in English, yet there are no EL teachers at the school. When a family of Iraqi refugees sought to register their daughter at Cody MCH, their community school, DPS attempted to transfer the child to a school over 25 miles away because it could not support her EL needs. The teachers ultimately relied on other students who spoke Arabic to assist the EL students.

Classes can have 50 or more students

  • Classrooms are stuffed with as many as fifty students and often do not have enough chairs and desks. Students sometimes sit on the floor, lean against walls, or congregate around teachers’ desks.
  • One Osborn MST class had 42 students but only 32 desks. Another classroom had 52 students but only 37 chairs and fewer desks. The overcrowding also significantly exacerbated the extreme heat at many points during the year.
  • Classrooms (at Law) become so crowded that a teacher who managed to obtain chairs for all 42 students had to pack them together so tightly that a left-handed student could not sit next to a right-handed student … When a teacher is absent and no short-term substitute is available, classes are frequently combined so one teacher may have up to 60 students in a single classroom.

Teachers are asked to buy their own supplies

  • The teaching resources at Law are woefully deficient; textbooks, library books, and other curricular materials were thrown away into a dumpster at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year when the school opened as an EAA school; the intent was to switch to digital learning. But the new digital platform was ineffective, lacked existing instructional materials, and was abandoned in the 2015-16 school year. Administrators told teachers at Law that they were expected to buy their own supplies.
  • Textbooks at Experiencia were damaged and many years out of date, with taped spines and ripped and missing pages. The computers at the school were frequently broken, and when they did work, the Internet connectivity was so poor that they were nearly unusable. The third floor of the building technically had a library, but there was no librarian and students were not permitted to access the library or check out books without a teacher escort. Most of the time, the library remained locked.

Students and their families aren’t getting the help they need

  • In those schools that do have access to a social worker, the social worker is often restricted to special education students, does not come every day, and is stretched beyond capacity, such that students wait months for an appointment.
  • After a Hamilton student was kidnapped and murdered, his classmates were not provided any opportunity to grieve. No additional counselors were brought in, and the teachers were not offered any support or training on how to speak with the students about the tragedy. Instead, on the day the police found the boy’s body, the only school-wide reaction was an announcement by loudspeaker to remind the students, who were using their phones to share details about what happened and to communicate their grief, that cell phones were not allowed at school.
  • At Experiencia, report cards were not translated into Spanish, and where teachers did not speak Spanish, no parent-teacher meetings with monolingual parents took place.

Students’ basic health and safety are imperiled

  • At Hamilton, temperatures of over 100 degrees caused students and teachers to vomit and pass out during the first week of school.
  • At Hamilton, the playground equipment—which is designed for 2-5 year olds, although the school serves children ages 5-14—is frequently broken. One of the playground slides is disconnected at the base so it shifts around, and the other has cracks with sharp pieces of plastic sticking out. Multiple students have sliced or otherwise injured themselves while playing.
  • At Hamilton … it is not uncommon for meals to feature moldy bread and expired milk. The students know not to drink out of the water fountains, which are frequently infested with cockroaches and maggots, and the teachers and principal bring in bottled water they purchase themselves.
  • Teachers at Hamilton Academy say the school is infested with cockroaches
    Teachers at Hamilton Academy say the school is infested with cockroaches.

    At Law, several classrooms have flooded. In one fourth-grade classroom, a leaking hole in the ceiling created what students called “the lake,” and the teacher surrounded the area with yellow caution tape after multiple requests for repairs were ignored.

  • At the Osborn schools, fire exits are frequently locked and chained to prevent unauthorized individuals from entering from the street. During the 2015-16 school year, a fire broke out in the school and students were given no notice to evacuate because the Osborn fire alarm system failed.
  • Students (at Hamilton) also find bullets, used condoms, sex toys, and dead vermin on the playground, although teachers try to arrive early to clean the playground themselves.
  • At Osborn MST, urine frequently leaks out of the men’s room and soaks the carpet in the hallway, causing the hallway to smell for days.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

What's fair

Colorado’s state-authorized charter schools could get more money next year

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Charter schools authorized at the state level by the Charter School Institute are likely to get more money in the 2018-19 budget year. That’s one year before most other charter schools will see benefits from last year’s charter school funding equity bill.

That bill was a major compromise out of the 2017 session, and it requires school districts to share money from voter-approved tax increases with the charter schools they’ve authorized, starting in 2019-20. The bill also created the mill levy equalization fund to distribute state money to the Charter School Institute’s 41 schools. Because no local school board approved these schools, they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for revenue from these increases, known as mill levy overrides.

Charter School Institute administrators came calling for their money this year, though, with a request for $5.5 million from the general fund. They arrived at this number by identifying institute schools within the geographic boundaries of districts that already share some extra revenue with their local charters and assuming institute schools got a similar share.

Institute Executive Director Terry Croy Lewis called it a “first step” toward parity that would bring institute and district-authorized charter schools to the same level in advance of the new law going fully into effect in 2019. Lewis said it seemed like a fair approach because the parents at institute-authorized schools often live within the geographic boundary and pay taxes at the same rates as parents whose children go to traditional schools or district-authorized charters.

However, the charter equity bill says that extra money for institute schools has to be distributed on an equal per-pupil basis. The original approach, which created more equity among schools in the same geographic boundary, created more disparities among institute schools in different regions – and the law might not have allowed it.

“I don’t think you can define equity in this conversation because equity cuts a lot of different ways,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and member of the Joint Budget Committee.

Budget analyst Craig Harper suggested to the Joint Budget Committee that separate legislation might be necessary to allow the distribution proposed by the Charter School Institute, something no lawmakers wanted to see after the bruising fight over the charter school equity bill.

Instead, the Charter School Institute revised its proposal to distribute the money among its schools on a per-pupil basis, regardless of geography and whether the local district already shares money.

What sort of difference does this make?

In the first distribution scenario, Early College of Arvada, located in the Westminster district, would have gotten nothing – because Westminster doesn’t currently share money with its own charters. Under the new proposal, the school would get $131,233 based on its pupil count. Meanwhile, Colorado Early College – Fort Collins, which would have gotten $621,357 because the Poudre district already shares money, would instead get just $374,952

Lingering confusion over the distribution question led JBC members to postpone a decision several times before they voted 4-2 this week to include the $5.5 million request in the 2018-19 budget.

It still has to survive the extended battle over the budget that takes place in the full House and Senate each year.