October 9th, 2012
02:11 PM ET

Can lawsuit, charter takeover save Highland Park, Michigan, schools?

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

Highland Park, Michigan (CNN) - A few weeks before school began here, parents filed into the high school cafeteria to meet the people just hired to revamp one of the state's worst-performing districts: their own.

They came with questions. What time would the school day start? What were these new uniforms they’d heard about? Would all the schools stay open? Would the same teachers be there? The same kids? Was there anything worth saving?

For years, financial and academic turmoil plagued Highland Park schools. The state of Michigan says the district ran at an operating deficit five of the last six years. Barely 800 kids still attended its three schools, and even those buildings were overgrown with weeds and tagged with graffiti.

There was a lot of cash coming in, more than $14,000 per student, but there weren’t enough textbooks to go around. Standardized test scores were embarrassingly low; among 11th-graders, 10% scored proficient in reading and 5% proficient in math. Some kids went on to college, but nobody - 0% - of kids reached the ACT's college readiness benchmarks.

The district drew national attention this summer when the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a "first-of-its-kind" lawsuit against the state, education leaders and Highland Park schools for allegedly failing to teach students to read at grade level.

Now the state-appointed emergency financial manager had handed the district over to a charter school operator, the Leona Group, for a five-year contract worth more than $750,000. In a statement, the Michigan governor’s office said it moved to address “a long overdue fiscal and academic crisis that was crippling the district” because it “can’t and won’t accept academic failure.”

For some here, it was a hostile takeover. For others, a new hope.

The new superintendent, Pamela Williams, was born in Highland Park, the crowd heard. She'd just taken charge in the days before, but the few answers she had were clear: School starts at 8:15 a.m. All kids wear white shirts with black or blue pants. All three buildings - the high school and two K-8 academies - stay open. Some teachers stay, but many would be new. If the charter operator did its job, she said, the same kids would be there, and maybe even more.

"We're basically asking for your support and participation," Williams said.

She told parents they expected to have about 25 kids per class, and a core academic focus in schedules. Their beloved polar bear mascot would stay, and the buildings would be cleaned up. There would be football and basketball, but she wasn't yet sure whether there was equipment for a band. The school newspaper? The swimming pool? No. Maybe next year.

Some people looked disappointed. A couple of parents yelled. Williams said they weren't thinking about the past or who was to blame for the schools' troubles; she'd just started and wasn't even sure what the district had already been through. No officials at the meeting wanted to comment on the lawsuit.

Williams had a request: "When we call and ask you to come, we need you to be here."

The crowd applauded.

‘You can make the school gooder’

Highland Park is a small city adjacent to Detroit, about three square miles that were once a center of innovation. The city was home to Henry Ford’s original Model T plant. Chrysler built its headquarters here in the 1920s but left in the early 1990s. The city's diverse, middle-class population ballooned to around 50,000 from the 1920s into the 1950s, then declined to about 11,000 in 2010. Its Beaux Arts-style library opened in 1926 but is now boarded up, empty. Last year, the city infamously tore out its street lights because it couldn’t pay the electricity bill.

The ACLU was already researching school issues when it bumped into the little-known state law that required assistance for students who aren't proficient in reading according to state tests they take in fourth and seventh grade. It investigated the worst-performing school districts, said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, and could've targeted the lawsuit at any of them.

But the disorganization and low scores in Highland Park struck her. It was in this little city that they met students, younger and older, who couldn't read. The lawsuit says these students were “denied the instruction necessary to attain basic literacy skills."

Plaintiffs are identified only by their initials in the lawsuit, and none were willing to talk with CNN. The ACLU included a series of short letters schoolchildren wrote to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, just a few sentences that sometimes complained about the lack of books and working bathrooms.

One letter from a fourth-grader reads:

"This is what I what to do when I what grow up at Bussness lady And can you give my a favorite By helping me to work my way up to keep up Jobs."

In another, a Highland Park seventh-grader spelled his name incorrectly, the ACLU said. He wrote:

"You can make the school gooder by getting 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."

The schools' failure doesn’t land solely on parents, teachers, district or state school leaders, Moss said, but she thinks the lawsuit forces them to work together.

“There’s lots of blame to go around,” Moss said. “We’re saying all the adults have failed (Highland Park kids).”

In the short term, she said, the ACLU wants learning conditions improved - textbooks in classrooms, cleaned up buildings, functioning bathrooms and heating systems. It wants every kid to have an individual literacy test and an appropriate intervention implemented.

“We can’t lose another year or two,” she said. “If kids aren’t learning to read, they’re not reading to learn."

The struggle with reading - and what that means for other types of learning - rings true to Johnathan Shearrod. He was a school leader and mediocre student before graduating from Highland Park schools in 2002, but looking back, he said he knows it was a poor education. Some teachers cared, he said, but they couldn’t take copies of “1984” home because there weren’t enough books.

When he met kids from other districts during student government trips, they talked about AP English or AP calculus, about how the Advanced Placement tests would save them so much trouble in college. He didn’t know what AP meant but didn’t want to look ignorant by admitting it in front of them.

Once, he said, he passed an exam on the Civil War - not because of what he’d learned in class, but because of what he’d heard on TV. He hung the test on the fridge.

“It was my grandmother and PBS that got me through,” he said.

Johnathan Shearrod is a 2002 Highland Park schools graduate.

Later on, in college at Lake Superior State University - a school in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Shearrod knew nobody - he spent hours on the phone with his high school friends. Everybody was struggling after high school. Some wanted to drop out of college. Eventually, some did.

Shearrod enrolled in remedial math, classes that cost money but didn’t count toward graduation. In the writing center, it blew his mind when a tutor explained the differences between their, there and they’re.

“You realize ‘I’m here because I’m stupid,’ ” he said. “At the end of the day, I told myself ‘I can either cry’ - which I did - ‘and go home. Or … you can get your ass in gear.’ ”

So, he said, he asked for help. He stayed in to study while others went out. He learned that rewriting his notes helped him retain information. His grades crept higher, but it never felt easy.

“Drive and hard work would only get me to mediocrity,” he said. “It's like starting the 100-meter dash 13 seconds late, and the race is only seven seconds.”

Ten years since graduation, he’s finished his bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. He spent a couple of years with the Peace Corps in Niger, working as a youth educator. He lives in Detroit and works for a nonprofit. There are still times when he stumbles on a task and wonders: Why do I not know how to do this?

Since school started, there's been little movement on the ACLU lawsuit. It was scheduled for a technical hearing this month, an ACLU spokeswoman said. Moss said bringing in a charter school operator is not enough to assure change for the kids, or to ensure state laws are enforced.

"There's been this focus on governance - a focus on bringing in an emergency manager or bringing in a charter company - but there's not been a focus on what kind of academic interventions need to happen in order to really have a quality difference in the kind of education the kids are getting," she said.

Shearrod said he thinks Highland Park schools have probably gotten worse since he’d graduated, and laws should’ve halted its free fall. More than any other changes, the lawsuit makes him hopeful that the schools will improve.

“It takes one person brave enough to scream, on their soapbox, at the top of their lungs, into the microphone,” he said. “Until you get the right person or group of people to hear it, does anyone ever hear you?”

Just got to wait for the grades’

Since school started after Labor Day, some Highland Park teachers have returned to their classes, but more are new, said Williams, superintendent of the newly named Highland Park Renaissance Academy. Teachers are gathering baseline data so they can address kids’ academic needs individually, she said. Williams estimates the charter school system will spend about $7,000 per pupil - half what was spent before - and she's confident it will get results come test time.

“Our investment is solely on the teaching and, well, a couple with the renovations, because, again, you cannot educate a child with ceiling tiles falling,” she said.

Williams said she has no comment on the lawsuit.

“My energy is focused on educating our children,” she said, “whether there's a lawsuit or not.”

Some parents said they're already seeing changes. The charter school operators added new lights and fresh coats of paint. They sealed off parts of buildings where kids used to cause trouble. There aren't police cars on the corners anymore.

Karen Johnson graduated from Highland Park schools, and her 16-year-old son, Kyle, is enrolled there now. She works flexible shifts at a home improvement store in the suburbs, and isn't always around to drive him to school or robotics club. They live close enough for him to walk, or catch a ride.

“The lawsuit is legit,” Johnson said. "They spent more time just getting the kids under control."

But one month into the school year, the buildings are starting to look better and kids don't linger in the hallways when they should be in class. She hears kids in detention are doing their schoolwork, and working on the buildings. She said she likes seeing the teachers and principals at football games. She loves that they recognize her, and know her son’s name.

Kyle's attitude has changed, too.

“He was doing good in class, but he’d be like, ‘I don’t feel like going to school today,’ ” she said. “Now it’s, ‘We’ve got to leave early. I want to make sure I get there on time.’ ”

Henry Ford Academy has reopened after being boarded up this summer.

It’s hasn’t been entirely smooth; Johnson said she believes the Leona Group inherited a mess. There still aren't enough books, so the focus is more on short stories and articles. Kyle and his friends heard only recently that some classes they've taken might not apply to graduation requirements. Plenty of parents - especially some she saw at the meeting this summer - are never around. She said she's curious to see how many of the new teachers stick around.

“These teachers, they say something and they want you to question it, at least to see if you’re paying attention,” Johnson said. “They allow them to think. (Kyle) has opinions. He talks about what’s going on in class, what he learned that day."

They won't really know how it's going till she sees a report card for her son. She knows he could use some help with reading and English.

It's only a month in. Like everybody else, she said she wants to see the test scores.

“I don’t want to get too excited," she said. "You’ve just got to wait for the grades.”

CNN’s Poppy Harlow and Laura Dolan contributed to this report.

Posted by
Filed under: Charter schools • Policy • Reading • video
soundoff (319 Responses)
  1. the doggonetruth

    What has happened to all the money that the Highland Park School District received from the state? How come no one is being accountable for how the money has been spent (or stolen?).

    October 12, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • TeamChaos

      Because that is standard operating procedure for socialist teachers and principals.

      October 15, 2012 at 6:14 am |
      • TLars

        You have no idea what it's like to teach in Highland Park.

        October 21, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
  2. chris

    Democrats support affirmative action programs in employment and college programs. Think before you vote.

    October 11, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  3. ckiecrumb

    My daughter attends a high school run by Leona Group and it is SO wonderful! She has been there for 3 years and has nothing but positive comments. They run a tight ship with quality staff and push the kids to be the best they can be. I think this is a win for the schools in question.

    October 10, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  4. The truth

    Sorry, you can't beat the Bell Curve with a lawsuit.

    October 10, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  5. solex

    Reading the posts here, one can easily get the impression that we could all use a little more education when it comes to the written language. If we are to believe the racists, it is somehow tied to to skin color that dictates how one will perform in school. Putting that absurdity aside, I think that the problem is NOT about ability, but about applicability.

    Even adults that have long been out of primary school need to "like" what they are doing... There is an old saying that no matter how proficient you are at something you will NEVER be any good at it if you hate it.

    Kids are taught by their peers and to some extent adults, that school is little more than a place to keep them accupied while their parents work. Their is no excitement or expectation of doing anything that they will enjoy. School is a chore. School is boring. These are the views of the average child.

    I do agree that our instant gratification culture has contributed to this – but it does not take the entire blame. I would also agree somewhat that knowing who is popular should not be important as who is impactful.

    But rather than assigning blame, which unfortunately has become the favorite pasttime of people on line, why not involve yourself? Mentor a child if you have none of your own or get involved with the schools if you think they need the help. I do. I teach remedial reading to kids. It is incredibly rewarding.

    So rather than acuse others of causing the problems we all share, put away your hatred and need to feel superior to others and become part of the solution.

    October 10, 2012 at 3:06 pm |


    October 10, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • JeffinIL


      October 10, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  7. JeffinIL

    From what I've read, charter schools overall don't perform any better than public schools overall. There are bright spots and failures in both.
    Failed experiment, time for the next idea.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • TLars

      Leona Group has - on average of their schools across the state - below standard Michigan test scores. Private for-profit charter schools do not mean better schools - even when the public schools are failing. They do make money for the people who invest in them. That's why Leona Group is in Highland Park. It was the only solution considered because the governor has an agenda.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
  8. sapnglish

    Just get rid of the Unions period.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • ollie

      Only to be replaced with unregulated corporate businesses that will profit on your tax money, hire only the cheapest labor, keep class sizes high, and still fail to educate kids.

      Do you really believe that private business will save schools? They will save their profit margin and have no qualms about it, right on the backs of your kids, investors paid with YOUR tax money.

      October 10, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
      • TLars

        They won't be accountable either.

        October 21, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  9. zach

    Wow Pastorcal77 Im actually having trouble deciding if you are a troll or if you actually believe what you are espousing. You claim that your message is not racist and is based simply on genetics yet your other comments are blatantly racist. So either you are a troll in which case you have been moderately succesful so congratulations. On the other hand though if you do actually do believe in what you are saying why demean your message by espousing racist ideology. Oh and your science is flawed

    October 10, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  10. Len

    Blah, blah, blah . . . . the district gets over $14,000 per student more than the MIchigan avergae and the fomer teacher claims she wants equality!!! The managers, administrators, teachers, school board, parents are all to blame, stand up and do something for your kids. The culture needs to be changed, try valuing education not rappers and atheletes. There are thousands and thousands of kids in other Michigan school districts who do not get as much $$ per pupil and they go on to college and lead successful lives. The scores and learning levels of these kids are so low it's sickening.

    October 10, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Mike

      Yeah – where does all the money go that schools steal from taxpayers? It goes into the pockets of the adult employees in the form of benefits and salaries, thats where. Public education has become the biggest racket in the history of the USA. Great job, admins and educators. You've managed to steal our money and not educate our kids for like 75 years straight without having to answer for it. Sickening.

      October 10, 2012 at 8:04 am |
      • Cynic

        Agreed. This is what happens when you take choice away from parents and relegate children to government schools that are accountable to no one. Still, we make the mistake of thinking that the real purpose of a government school is to teach children to learn and to think. No, the real purpose is to dumb kids down, brainwash them with state-mandated propaganda (such as the rote recitation of the socialist Pledge of Allegiance), and teach them to be good little autotrons who never question authority and who are too obtuse to ever rise above the neighborhood in which they are born.

        October 10, 2012 at 8:25 am |
      • jill christensen


        Education starts in the home, with the parent/s....how much time does a parent/s help with the children's homework, read to them, teach them manners and everyday life experiences??? Seems to me there is allot of parents that have no business having children as they no longer raise them the school does! If your a parent at home then get involved, volunteer, help support your teachers! Most teachers stay overtime (not paid) to tutor, work on projects for kids, up date their training/teaching skills, and most will pay for a child's lunch because the parent simply didn't give a dam or other material needs for the kids because a parent may not of had the money...give teachers a decent salary and you will have a decent kid graduate. Where does parents responsiblity come in???

        October 10, 2012 at 8:46 am |
      • Mrs. Smith

        School does not end when the bell rings!! I am a mother of two teenage girls, since their first day of school the rule has been the same; you come home grab a snack sit down at the kitchen table and do your work. Then as a PARENT you review, ask questions, and make sure they understand!! If they struggle you speak with the teacher!! Bad grades have never been accepted!! How many of the parents with children in the public school system even question their children? We are in the public school system and my children are above state level on all their test scores.......Hummm wonder why??? Because I hold myself as well as the school responsible for MY child's education!!! The blame game is so easy. By the way our school system in low to middle class, and I think the teachers are amazing for what they have to put up with from parents who never take responsibility for their naughty children!!

        October 10, 2012 at 9:57 am |
      • Mrs. Has to Work

        Mrs Smith,
        I agree that teaching has to be a priority at home, but not everyone has the advantage of being able to pick kids up and work on homework straight away. Some parents work late, or work two jobs just to make ends meet. I'm not saying that that excuses them from parental responsibilites, but it certainly throws a wrench in your idyllic plan. I myself work 12 hour shifts and by the time I get home and feed my children, try to get baths and homework done, it gets to be a late night. In the society that we have created, we need to put more money and resources into teaching our children in school.

        October 10, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
      • Aaron

        Mrs. Has to Work,

        How much more time and resources do we need to put into the school raising your children for you that we already do. If you, as their parent, do not value working with them and finding the time to get it done, then they will not value the education that the school is giving them. YOU MUST MAKE TIME FOR YOUR KIDS, NO EXCUSES.

        I get up at 5:30 so that I can get my child to daycare by 6:30. I teach math to 7th and 8th graders, coach football and track after school, and get home between 7:30 and 8:00 daily. My wife works a schedule from 7-5 and home by 6. When I get home at 7:30, we eat as a family, do the bath thing, and I still MAKE the time to assure that what my child learned at school is reinforced and understood.

        If a person values what they advocate, then they will MAKE the time to see it done instead of making an excuse and passing it off. Does my schedule mean I don't get to watch a lot of TV and must miss out on satisfying myself, yes, but it is worth it.

        October 10, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
      • Mrs. Has to Work

        I never once said that I don't do what needs to be done to raise my kids the right way. We, too, eat a family supper, do homework togetther and my children have their needs met. What I am saying is there are parents out there who do not do this, or are not intellectually equipted to do this. If we put a little more money and resources into our schools then maybe my kids wouldn't be in a classroom with 27 other kids and they could be learing from a professional like yourself. I am not downplaying the importance of the parental role in education, but what about those children that don't have the privledge of having a parent such as yourself? Do they deserve less education than the others?

        October 10, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
      • Mrs. Smith

        Please answer me this..... Why is it that the children who play by the rules suffer the most in a classroom setting? When I had children and made a grown up decision to take full responsibility for my child, told them from the time they could remember – School is no JOKE, if your job is to be sitting in a desk you better pray to every god above I do not find out you were out of that desk. You follow the rules and reply with yes sir and yes ma'am. But the children whose parents do not care about their child’s classroom behavior and what is going is a lot of distraction in the classroom where a teacher could be teaching instead of trying to control naughty a$$ kids?? Like Aaron said you make the time for the children you brought into this world. Nothing is more important to me then raising educated, strong, independent women. I would give up every luxury item and live in a shack with a dirt floor to instill the importance of an education. This is AMERICA every opportunity is at their feet for the taking if the desire is there. Nothing is impossible with a strong work ethic. And that is what is wrong with most of the kids today!!!

        October 10, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • squirrelyone

      I agree that it needs to be a culture change. I'm not from Michigan, so I can't speak on this case directly, but I do wonder about public school systems where the admin is sitting prettily while the teachers can't pay their bills, the buildings fall apart, and the students learn nothing. You can't run a school like a business. In a big business, of course the admin gets a hefty sum while the front line workers get minimum and shoddy products just get a shrug and a nod. However, our culture wants to accept the minimum and distract ourselves with rappers, etc. And it doesn't work. A school is not a business–investment must be equal at all levels, because the product, a well-prepared young adult, is the only thing that matters at the end of the day.

      October 10, 2012 at 9:02 am |
1 2