Delayed decision

Detroit students filed a lawsuit seeking the right to an equal education — 18 months later, they’re still in legal limbo

PHOTO: Jammaria Hall
Jammaria Hall, who says he was cheated of his education, sits at Osborn High School.

At Detroit’s Osborn High School, Jammaria Hall often endured classrooms without qualified teachers, books, or enough desks and chairs. He shivered in his coat when the boiler was broken, scorched in warm months, and watched vermin scurry about the building in a school district the state controlled for most of his K-12 education.

Now, Hall is struggling academically as a freshman at Tallahassee Community College in Florida. He takes remedial classes to improve his reading, learn to construct sentences and strengthen basic math skills. He eventually hopes to transfer to nearby Florida A&M University, but for now the aspiring financial planner is working hard just to catch up.

“I was cheated,” the 18-year-old native Detroiter said of his education in the city’s district schools. “So I’m behind. I knew that coming down here. I knew it was going to be about getting help, learning and catching up.”

Eighteen months ago, Hall joined with six other students, parents and teachers to file a federal lawsuit accusing the state of Michigan of failing to provide students access to literacy.

The case could have long-term and sweeping implications for schools across the nation because if plaintiffs here can prove their constitutional right to literacy, students across the country could follow with similar suits. In August, U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy said in court he would decide in 30 days or more whether the 136-page complaint has enough merit to continue. Seven months later, plaintiffs, their supporters and the districts are still waiting.

While the case sits in legal limbo, lawsuit plaintiffs like Hall have moved on to new, equally challenging chapters of their lives while Detroit’s schools — despite attention from a new superintendent and school board — remain among the nation’s most challenged.

The lawsuit is just as relevant today as it was when it was filed in September 2016, said Mark Rosenbaum, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing the plaintiffs.

“The students are still suffering big time from the conditions of their education prior to the filing of the lawsuit despite the bright, energetic, committed superintendent and school board,” he said. “The conditions on the ground have not changed … It’s a direct result of failure in the way the state ran the school district and the failure to provide these young people with the opportunities they deserve.”

He points to Hall as an example.

“Jammaria is going to succeed,” Rosenbaum said. “He’s already succeeded in life, but it’s clear he’s at a material disadvantage compared to other students who had an elementary and high school education appropriate to their desire and intelligence.”

Many Detroit graduates have similar struggles, he added.

“They have not developed foundational skills they should have. My sense of the schools today? We’ve had significant improvement. There is an extraordinary superintendent who’s clearly committed to these young people and realizes the importance of literacy, but the state put these students in a deep and wide hole. You don’t climb out of it without the basic resources to get them what they’ve been missing.”

The state, which declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, argues it can’t be held responsible for literacy in Detroit. Plaintiffs allege the state ran the city’s main district for much of the last two decades, and created school funding and other policies that led to dysfunction in district and charter schools.

In its motion to dismiss the case, the state wrote: “While pointing the finger at Defendants, Plaintiffs ignore many other factors that contribute to illiteracy, such as poverty, parental involvement (or lack thereof), medical problems, intellectual limitations, domestic violence, trauma, and other numerous influences.”

Rosenbaum said he has heard nothing further regarding the case, but added Murphy doesn’t have a reputation for intentionally delaying cases. The plaintiffs and other interested parties are anxious to hear something from the judge who essentially is being asked to decide whether literacy is a constitutional right. If Murphy allows the unprecedented case to continue, some believe it could go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court because it seeks several guarantees of equal access to education, including screening, intervention, and a statewide accountability system.

A major factor of the condition of Detroit’s school system is the district was under some form of state control for much of the last 20 years. A series of state-appointed emergency managers in the main district shuttered scores of schools, forcing some students to travel far from their homes. Many teachers quit or walked out in protest as their pay was cut and their schools deteriorated.

The state took over 15 district schools in 2012 for a state-run recovery district that it then disbanded five years later, while state policy encouraged the rapid expansion of charter schools. Critics say the city’s nearly 100 charter schools have exacerbated problems in the district without creating many high-quality options for children.

With new Superintendent Nikolai Vitti taking over the district last fall along with a newly elected school board that assumed duties at the top of 2017, Shalon Miller, a resource teacher at Cody Medicine and Community Health Academy, a plaintiff in the suit, said some conditions have improved—but not enough.

Shalon Miller

“It doesn’t erase more than a decade of mistreatment of these students in Detroit,” Miller said. “There are a lot of students who didn’t have certified teachers before them for more than a year. You have substitute teacher before you in elementary, middle and high school and you wonder why they are behind.”

The lawsuit “should still hold the state of Michigan accountable on their experiment of black and brown children,” said Miller, who is also a mother, nurse, union leader, and senior sponsor. “It was an experiment, and it failed. You can’t get that time back.”

Conditions remain poor at Cody, Miller said. While some roof repairs have been made, it still leaks and buckets dot hallways on rainy days. Some classes still don’t have teachers. Recruited by the Detroit Public Schools 17 years ago at historically black Kentucky State University, Miller, who hails from Toledo, said the situation is painful.

“It hurts me to see children of color, children that look like myself, children that look like my niece, my nephew, children that look like my family being so disenfranchised,” she said. “I don’t understand why it doesn’t hurt more people.”

Miller believes the impact on the lives of these children may have devastating long-term emotional effects.

“A lot of students already come to school with trust issues. If you have adults that are supposed to be stable, and you’re supposed to have stability at school, what are we doing to these kids?

“School is supposed to be a beacon, a refuge, and it’s not happening. That’s why I feel this lawsuit is so, so important, and why it can change the game — not just in Detroit schools, but in Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland and all major urban centers having the same problem. It’s a systemic problem, and the lawsuit can right these wrongs.”

For Hall’s good friend, Micah Paul, an Osborn senior, it’s painful to attend school each day. But Paul, who wants to become a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he tries not to think about it and works to keep a positive attitude.

He’s keenly aware of his environment — mold on the ceiling from a leaking roof, no books to take home to do homework and having to look up lessons on his iPhone 5. If he can, he gets water from a gallon container in his counselor’s office because he refuses to drink from water fountains with lead discovered in the pipes. If he can’t, he remains thirsty or high-tails it to a nearby store for a few sips of bottled water.

He’s fortunate; he has some internet access. Many students can’t even access a cell phone with wi-fi to manage homework.

“It puts them in a hole,” said Paul, who’s studying marketing and earning college credits in a dual program through Wayne County Community College and Wayne State University.

“This is about privilege. I’m not going to say this is white supremacy, but I feel our education should be equal and fair. We should get the same access to education as other students. They get better books, better learning conditions and better everything. For real, for real better. A better education than someone in the city would. But it is what it is.”

Parent voices

A parent hotline is among fixes promised for special education in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Hero Images
A program for students with special needs is moving to out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, one of several issues parents raised at a school board forum Wednesday night.

It is a stunning number: roughly one-sixth of students in Detroit’s main school district have learning disabilities or other special needs, compared with one-eighth of students statewide.

So it was no surprise that special education was a recurring theme at a sometimes boisterous community forum with parents in the Detroit Public School Community District.

Patricia Thornton enrolls her youngest son, who has autism, in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary.

She said teachers at the school were welcoming, but she worries they haven’t been adequately supported by the district to teach students with disabilities.

“They need some training,” she said.

The district on Monday will receive the results of an audit of its programs for children with special needs (as of last month, the district refers to “special education” as “exceptional student education”). Vitti invited Thornton to the event, promising that an improvement plan will be outlined.

“That will show you our plan of attack to improve systems across the system,” he said, adding that past administrations haven’t done much more for special education than keep up with federal requirements. “We haven’t had a vision beyond compliance,” he said.

An anonymous complaint hotline for teachers and parents is among the proposed solutions, Vitti said. As the district works to assign every classroom in the district by the fall a certified teacher, it will also focus on hiring adequate staff for special needs programs, he added.

Detroit is not alone in its struggle to provide adequate special education. A report issued by the lieutenant governor’s office last year said the state’s current funding formula shortchanges schools by almost $700 million a year.

Still, not every parent left the forum satisfied, although some of the concerns they raised had roots before Vitti started in Detroit over a year ago. Pansy Foster-Coleman’s lengthy experience with special education in Detroit began when she brought a federal lawsuit against the district in 1996, resulting in Cass Tech and other application-only high schools being opened to students with special needs, she told board members. As a parent, she said she saw the benefits of ATTIC, a program run by the countywide agency Wayne RESA,  that provides technology like speech aids and hearing devices to students with disabilities. Before Vitti’s arrival , the program was slated to be moved out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, whose school district also enrolls a high proportion of special needs students.

The prospect outraged Foster-Coleman, even after Vitti offered to meet with her and Wayne RESA officials.

Addressing parents at the meeting, she said, “You folks need to get together and sue somebody.”

Her comments were typical of a meeting that became raucous at times. Board members stood up several times to ask for calm after attendees raised their voices and talked over others in the room.

Partway through the meeting, an explanation for the fervor floated up from the back row.

“We are here for these kids, and we want to be acknowledged.”

 

Classroom Lessons

They saw life inside Detroit classrooms — and now some of them want to teach

PHOTO: Geneva Simons Photography
City Year Americorp members close their graduation ceremony with a spirited celebration.

For the 71 young adults who just finished 10 months of service in Detroit district schools, this past academic year was, essentially, a trial by fire.

The City Year Americorps members worked with some of Detroit’s neediest children — tutoring and mentoring them, and assisting their teachers in the classroom. It wasn’t easy. Many rose at 5:30 a.m. and reported working up to 12-hour days for a modest stipend. For many volunteers, the rigor of it all was clarifying: It inspired some to pursue teaching and pointed others toward different career paths.

City Year does not yet have comprehensive data about what percentage of its corps members are interested in going into teaching, or working as counselors or social workers in a Detroit school setting. But the program is beginning to track its alumni; what it finds out could prove instructive for the district, which is still struggling to fill nearly 200 teacher vacancies.

Americorps is a federal volunteer program, whose participants get a $1,000 a month stipend, a $5,800 post-service award. Some also have a chance to be awarded a $5,000 college scholarship. In return, the 18- to 25-year-olds commit to year of full-time service with the goal of keeping public school students on track to graduate.

Chalkbeat caught up with six recent Americorps alumni to discuss what they learned about the challenges and rewards of serving in Detroit schools, and how those lessons shape what they want to do next.

Bryan Aaron, 23, Detroit

Bryan Aaron

When he started tutoring in a class of 5th graders at Noble Elementary-Middle School, Bryan Aaron knew students’ English and math scores were shockingly low, with fewer than 10 percent passing the MSTEP in both subjects. But he was surprised to learn just how much factors outside of the classroom — food and housing insecurities, lack of transportation — affect students’ grades and attendance. In some cases students would be living with a parent one day, and an aunt or grandparent the next.

“It’s a huge factor in their ability to learn,” he said, noting that standardized tests don’t account for these issues. “What is not being taken into consideration is they haven’t had any sleep because they had to move in the middle of the night, and they haven’t had adequate nutrition.”

That helped him understand how much consistency matters for students. In one case, he helped a student with poor attendance figure out how to get to school since his father was using the family car at that time. Aaron arranged for him to ride the bus with an older sibling.

Now, Aaron, a recent college grad, is planning to apply to medical school. As he is working on his application, he’s considering conducting pediatric research on bioethics or the post-operative effects of opiates. He’s hoping to be accepted by a medical school in the region, and aspires to form a partnership between the district and the medical school to expose Noble students to the health sciences.

Blake Wilkes, 23, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Blake Wilkes

After spending a school year working in an 8th grade classroom at J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, Wilkes has decided he’s not suited for a career as a classroom teacher in the long-term because he said he doesn’t “have the patience to deal with what [students] go through.” But he’s not leaving education altogether: The recent college graduate will return to do a second year of service, which corps members have an option to do, then he plans to pursue a graduate degree in psychology, with the goal of becoming a school guidance counselor for the Detroit district.

During his first year in the program, the night owl pushed himself to rise by 5:30 a.m. for the 12-hour workday ahead. He tutored students in core subjects, helped the classroom teacher with lesson plans, and coordinated after-school activities. He said that his work taught him what difficult home lives some students endure, and how much the resulting social-emotional issues  impact their attitude and academic performance. He recalls a once-happy, high-achieving student who started having anger and behavioral issues after her mother died in the middle of the school year. He said he talked it through with her as best he could, and shed empathetic tears for the grieving student.

He also cried on the last day of school, recognizing how transformational the year had been, and how much he had grown and developed on a personal level.

“Seeing the kinds of stuff that the kids have to deal with everyday and how nobody’s on their side, it motivates me to work hard for them,” Wilkes said.

Brea Liggons, 25, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Brea Liggons

Working inside a 4th grade classroom at Gompers Elementary-Middle School, a pre-K–8 school in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, showed Liggons the staggering amount teachers have on their plates.

“Sometimes, it looks like teachers don’t care about their students, but they have one title and multiple roles they have to play everyday,” she said. “They don’t have the capacity to sit down with the students one-on-one, but I did.”

Her Americorps year recalled her own challenging middle school experience, and that increased her resolve to help students with their grades, attendance, and social-emotional skill set.

“Everyday, we had to talk about their struggles, their improvement, and we really needed to pay close attention if they acted out of the ordinary,” she said. “That’s how we knew if they were having a problem like a parent passing away.”

Liggons, who plans to return to her graduate studies at Wayne State University before becoming a counselor of some kind in a district school, taught students how to set goals, and about the power of optimistic thinking.  

“After awhile, they were begging to set their own goals. They were excited,” she said of their goals, such as deciding to let others go first, remembering to raise hands in class, and giving compliments to others and to themselves. “Just by doing that, we were literally able to watch some of our students grow immensely.”

Yazmin Gerardo, 22, Farmington Hills

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Yazmin Gerardo

A self-described introvert, Gerardo found it overwhelming to work with 4th grade students at the Brenda Scott Academy because it was so large. The school in northeast Detroit, which serves pre-K to 8th graders, has more than 700 students. But she stretched, in an effort to understand and assist students.

“It wasn’t about me,” the native Detroit, who attended Detroit public schools, said. “At the end of the day, we were doing this, working with kids, and for good reason.”

Her year of service inspired her to pursue a career in teaching in the Detroit district.

“Having someone to constantly show up and root for them is what I want to do,” she said.

“…They would come to me and say, ‘I wasn’t going to come to school today, but you promised me we would eat together at lunch, we could play a game or you would give me stickers.’”

Daniel Finegan, 25, Sterling Heights

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Daniel Finegan

By the end of the school year, which he spent tutoring, mentoring and assisting the classroom teacher with 7th and 8th graders at Bethune Elementary-Middle School, Finegan was so set on teaching in a Detroit public school, he was already looking for a rental home in the Bagley neighborhood in northwest Detroit. Not only that, he’s had interviews with principals at four schools and has a contingency offer in hand.

“City Year has been my student teaching experience,” Finegan, who has a degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh, said. His Americorps year solidified his decision to teach.

He is working toward his teacher’s certification, and if all goes according to plan, he’ll be ready to start teaching in the district when the 2018–2019 school year begins.

Parker Schimler, 23, Royal Oak

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Parker Schimler

After his year of service in 7th and 8th grade classrooms at Gompers, Schimler understands exactly what it can be like when a school district struggles with teacher vacancies. One teacher he worked with had hip surgery, and substitute teachers were in and out of the classroom for most of the school year. It left students discombobulated and unfocused.

But that gave him an opportunity to take a deep dive into the lives of the students, discovering their strengths and helping them work on their weaker areas. He said he became particularly good at getting shy students to open up to him, and the ones who appreciated him most sometimes drew pictures for him. He was left with a strong appreciation for one student in particular, who set a goal to be a NBA player and an athletic shoe designer. That student made Schimler an origami athletic shoe.

“Without a teacher in the classroom, they weren’t getting the education I did and the education they deserve,” he said. “I worked with them in small groups and gave them worksheets to help them out the best I could.”