Highland Park schools sued over students' reading proficiency

By Corey Williams

Associated Press

HIGHLAND PARK (AP) -- The state of Michigan, its education chief and the emergency manager for the financially troubled Highland Park school district were named in a civil lawsuit last Thursday that claims students in the small, urban district near Detroit have been denied proper reading skills.

The suit was filed in Wayne County Circuit Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on behalf of more than 950 students. The lawsuit seeks education reform.

This is about "a right of children to read," ACLU Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss said at a news conference. "We want ... the interests of these children to be front and center on any state or district reform."

Michigan Department of Education said last Thursday that it has not received the lawsuit and is not commenting on pending litigation. Joyce Parker was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in May to oversee the district's finances.

Public schools in Highland Park are among the lowest-performing on standardized tests in the state.

Only 35 percent of 4th-graders and 27 percent of 7th-graders scored "proficient" or above on the 2011-2012 Michigan Educational Assessment Program reading test, according to the lawsuit. That year, only seven percent of 7th-graders were "proficient" or higher on the math portion of the test.

Michelle Johnson's daughter is in the 11th grade at Highland Park High School, and Johnson said she performs on the 3rd- and 5th-grade levels in reading and math.

"I've never seen the schools this bad," Johnson said. "The schools are ran down. The kids are not learning. The kids ... they don't have books. They don't have counselors. My daughter is ashamed of where she is. She wouldn't speak out until the other day to tell that she couldn't do the work, or read or write.

"When your child is not college ready, can't fill out an application, how can she even begin to get a job?"

Her daughter, whose name was not released, is a party to the lawsuit.

The ACLU spent months in Highland Park homes, speaking with parents and students, said Mark Rosenbaum, an ACLU attorney. The organization also looked at struggling schools in River Rouge, southwest of Detroit, and Pontiac to the north.

"We could have picked many of them, but Highland Park's problems stood out," Rosenbaum said.

Financially, Highland Park is one of the poorest in the state. Its budget deficit has risen from $6.6 million to more than $11 million and the state has advanced the district several state aid payments to meet teacher payroll. Many classrooms lack books and other supplies.

Parker wants to turn the district over to private operators, who would run the schools as part of a charter system beginning this fall.

"Unfortunately, the current plan to privatize the entire district appears to be based solely on finances, rather than education," said David Hecker, president of Michigan's branch of the American Federation of Teachers.

"A bolder approach to transforming Highland Park schools would require adequate funding, collaboration and community engagement, and research-based school improvement strategies," Hecker said in a statement.

The governor's office has moved to address the "long overdue fiscal and academic crisis that was crippling the district, shortchanging its students and threatening the schools' very existence," Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said in an email to The Associated Press.

"Clearly, the financial and academic problems at Highland Park schools are what led the governor to appoint an emergency manager and again ensure that the kids of Highland Park Schools get the education they need and deserve."

Published: Mon, Jul 16, 2012