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.”

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.