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.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson, and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly 10-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators.

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters: dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

“I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, smaller schools with fewer than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation blamed huge, impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, the General Motors Foundation awarded a five-year grant for $27 million to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school.

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.