Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Do all children have the right to read?
This question is the basis of a class-action lawsuit filed recently by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan against the state of Michigan, the state superintendent, and a Detroit-area school district.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of eight children but representing close to 1,000 students in the Highland Park School District, charges that students were not provided the basic educational tools or support they needed to read at grade level. "A child who cannot read will be disenfranchised in our society and economy for a lifetime," the ACLU of Michigan summed up in a statement about the case.
Dismal reading scores
The lawsuit cites state test scores, which paint a dismal picture of student achievement in the impoverished district, where close to 100 percent of students are African American. Results of recent state exams found that two thirds of 4th graders and three quarters of 7th graders are not proficient in reading. And it gets worse: 90 percent of the district's high school seniors failed the reading section of the state exam. (The suit focuses on reading, but math outcomes at the district schools were even more woeful: 93 percent of 7th graders aren't proficient in math and 97 percent of twelve graders failed state math exams.)
One student represented in the suit, an 11th grader at Highland Park Community High School, reads at a third grade level. "How can she begin to get a job when she's still on an elementary level?" her mother asked the Detroit Free Press. Another plaintiff, an eighth grader who reads at the third grade level, was never provided any reading support or tutoring, even though state law requires that students who don't show proficiency on state tests receive special assistance to help them reach grade level.
Cold classrooms, dirty bathrooms
The ACLU of Michigan's executive director, Kary Moss, called the overall environment at Highland Park's three schools "appalling," citing conditions reminiscent of a Dickens novel or a forsaken corner of the Third World. "Many classes have no or inadequate heat; students must wear their winter parkas and gloves in class…In at least one seventh grade class we learned that students had to sit on the floor or stand at the back of the classroom. The bathrooms are not properly maintained, often smeared with feces, lacking toilet paper and paper towels, and missing stall doors and other fixtures. We have heard reports that homeless men have lived in unsecured buildings without detection by school officials. Classroom and hallways are often filthy and damp from leaks. The libraries in the schools are usually closed and inaccessible to student."
Those inclined to blame parents when students fail should talk to Michelle Johnson, a long time Highland Park resident whose daughter is a plaintiff in the suit. Johnson says she, "spoke out at nearly every public meeting” and “went to school with [her] kids every day, all day this year," according to ACLU documents. "But nothing I do will work if the district and the state don’t meet me half way. All I am asking for is a full partner in my child’s education so that she can learn the basics — reading,” she said.
It's disheartening to learn about such extreme examples of educational failure in the 21st century, in a country that professes to support education for all its children. The Michigan ACLU quotes Nelson Mandela, who observed that, "There is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.” As the "right to read lawsuit" demonstrates, our collective soul isn't looking so good.
Watch a video about the case, below, and find out more here.