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.”

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. 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.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes

Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”