Horrific 10 Percent Literacy Rate Prompts ACLU to Sue Michigan Schools

A first-of-its-kind lawsuit demands that the Highland Park School District give children the 'right to read.'
Low literacy rates prompts the ACLU and concerned students to file a lawsuit against the Highland Park School District. (Photo: Richard Hutchings)
Jul 13, 2012
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

What happens when almost all the 11th graders in an entire school district aren't proficient in math or reading? According to Michelle Johnson, a concerned parent in Michigan's failing Highland Park schools, the kids "are going to be statistics. They are going to be in prison. They are not going to get the things they need in life."

"We need someone to step in now, or our kids are going to fail," says Johnson in the ACLU video The Right to Read: Protecting Michigan's Future.

In the Highland Park school district, just outside of Detroit, only 10 percent of students from third to eighth grade are proficient in reading and math. As to be expected, the statistics get even worse as the students get older. Each year, kids in 11th grade take the Michigan Merit Exam to see if they are college-ready. In 2011, 90 percent of Highland Park students failed the reading portion, 97 percent failed the math section, and 100 percent failed the social studies and science portions.

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On July 12, the ACLU of Michigan, along with eight students, stepped in. They filed a first-of-its-kind class-action lawsuit against the state of Michigan, its agencies charged with overseeing public education, and the Highland Park School District for failing to take the necessary and effective measures to ensure students are reading at grade level.

Kary Moss, the executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, told TakePart that "the lawsuit refers to the state constitution, which says that the state shall maintain and support a system of public education. The ACLU argues that this is not a system of public education."

During their investigation, the ACLU collected writing samples from a few of the children. One of these students is Quentin, a 14-year-old boy who just finished seventh grade yet is reading at a first-grade level. His letter will "break your heart," Moss said. "In the first sentence, he spells his name incorrectly."

You can view the letters in the legal complaint. Here is what Quentin had to say about his school:

My name is Quemtin and you can make the school gooder by geting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.

Quentin is one of almost 1,000 students attending Highland Park public schools. The district operates two K-8 schools and a high school that have been in the spotlight this year for their financial troubles and a move to appoint emergency managers for the schools. Moss explains that the state announced a plan to dissolve the district and scatter the kids to different schools, but they rescinded that decision in favor of turning the schools over to a charter operator. No decision is final yet, according to Moss. "There has been no public announcement on whether they've awarded the contract to anybody," she says.

The bottom line, according to Moss is: "Everybody is talking about the corruption in the school board and the deficit, but nobody is talking about literacy and the fact that 90 percent of 12th graders aren't proficient in reading." The ACLU, Michelle Johnson, and a team of concerned parents are now making a point to put the interest of the children front and center. "We're trying to give these kids a voice," Moss says.

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