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.”

One year in

A year after Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, a look back at his application shows what’s changed

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the job on March 30, 2017.

Next week will mark a full year since Superintendent Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, taking on one of the most daunting jobs in American education.

As leader of the state’s largest district, he faced a long list of challenges: hundreds of vacant teaching positions, deteriorating buildings, dismal test scores, a total lack of systems for finances and hiring — the legacy, Vitti says, of the state-appointed emergency managers who ran the district for years before his arrival.

One year later, it remains to be seen whether Vitti will be able deliver the hopeful turnaround he promised in his 27-page application. It’s far too soon to look for real signs of progress — like higher test scores — because major changes to schools like a new curriculum won’t be implemented until next school year. But enrollment is up slightly, budgets have been balanced, and teacher salaries are on the rise.

Below, we return to his application — his blueprint for the district — to mark the things that have happened, the plans that have been made, and the work still left to do.

Click on the highlighted text to compare Vitti’s words with his actions and read our coverage of his first year in the district.


Candidate File for Nikolai Vitti

DETROIT PUBLIC SCHOOLS

COMMUNITY DISTRICT

Superintendent Search

2017-18

Please accept this letter as my official application to serve as the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), I am applying for this extraordinary challenge and opportunity because of my deep and unwavering belief in urban public education and my love for my home city of Detroit. The city’s voters have demanded and received an elected School Board, The School Board’s success will rest upon its decision to select the right leader who has the vision, track record, experience, commitment, strength, and perseverance for the job. I believe that I am that leader who is ready to collaboratively own the success of DPSCD’s future with the Board,

I offer the Board a child-centric and seemingly outside, objective perspective of how we can build the district into the best urban school district in the nation, while simultaneously doing that work with the empathy and sensitivities of a Detroiter. Growing up in Metro Detroit, my family and I have directly experienced the challenges of immigration, single motherhood, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, alcoholism, and foreclosures. My immediate and extended family represents the spirit and diversity of Detroit as we are a collection of ethnic Whites, African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, and Arab-Americans. From delivering the Detroit Free Press at 5 a.m. or parking cars on Michigan Avenue for the Tigers’ game to supplement our family’s income, to my grandmother working for Ford as an hourly cashier or my grandparents and father working in the factory at the River Rouge plant, to my mother earning her GED after dropping out of high school as a teenage mother and working to this day as a hairdresser, to my father eventually graduating from Wayne State University or my family running a pizzeria, Detroit is in my blood and I am eager to return home and serve the city.

An unbridled passion and drive to catch up to my peers, along with the work ethic and pride of my family, led me to focus my college experience exclusively on reading, studying, and writing to better understand myself and the world. Despite struggling through my K-12 experience due to undiagnosed dyslexia and a family home structure that did not always feel comfortable advocating for academic excellence, I quickly realized that my college education was a vehicle to my own self-actualization and empowerment. It was there where I also reunited with my father. However, empowerment did not mean more for myself, it meant building my capacity and confidence to empower others. After considering law, medicine, and even film, I decided that the greatest vehicle for social justice and transformation, at scale, was public education. I began that work as a teacher and eventually as a superintendent to assume greater responsibility and ownership for the learning environments that all of our children deserve.

Traditional public education is at a perceived crisis, whether that crisis is truly legitimate or exaggerated for political and ideological reasons, we must conduct our work with greater strategy, efficiency, and transparency in order to produce stronger outcomes. I offer the Board and community an expansive track record of success with transforming some of the most challenged learning environments at the classroom, school, district, and state levels that mirror those in Detroit. This work has occurred as a practitioner in the Bronx, Miami, in several urban communities in Florida, and most recently in Jacksonville, FL. I have only served in traditional public schools because of my deep belief that this is where our work is most important. The only way our nation can meet its professed ethos of equal opportunity is to ensure a strong public education system is ever present. Detroit can only restore its greatness with a strong public school system.

My initial contract in Jacksonville was from November, 2012 to June, 2016. It was renewed early on a 7-0 School Board vote for a three year extension. I am in the first year of that three year extension. I admit that our work in Jacksonville is incomplete but at the same time I can confidently state that I will leave the district in a better place than I assumed it four years ago. This is evidenced through historic achievement levels and improvement in graduation rates, the National Assessment in Educational Progress (NAEP), district grade, and post-secondary readiness among several other indicators.

Four years ago Duval County was seven percentage points from the state average, today it is nearly one percentage point away with an improvement of over Ti percentage points. Today our African-American graduation rate leads all large urban school districts in Florida, our achievement gap between White and African-American students is the narrowest in reading, math, and Algebra among the largest districts in Florida and one of the narrowest among the largest districts in the nation according to NAEP. We have increased post-secondary college readiness in reading by 11 percentage points from 73% to 84%, and a 17 percentage points in math from 55% to 72%. African-American post-secondary readiness for reading has improved from 67% to 81%, and in mathematics from 39% to 66% over the past four years. We have been a “B” district for consecutive years for the first time in years. The performance of nearly all groups of students have improved in the vast majority state assessments after the second year of new standards, and performance is due to improve again this year based on mid-year internal assessments.

I would leave Duval County with an infrastructure that has been solidified in the areas of technology, blended learning, budget alignment to a Strategic Plan, art and music programming, data systems, curriculum selection and adoption for the new standards, school programming with an emphasis on STEM, accelerated courses, and Career Academies, leadership development at the school and district level, alternative and over-age schools, schools avoiding state sanction, redesign of low enrolled and struggling schools, and the concentration of stronger leaders and teachers in struggling schools.

I apply for this position knowing that I am returning home and that the School Board and community need leadership sustainability. I have been asked to apply to several superintendent positions, charter networks, and private companies over the years; Jacksonville was the only district in which I applied for my first superintendency and I am now only applying for this opportunity. I fully embrace and would only request a long-term commitment with the School Board to begin the problem solving process to improve the school district.

The School Board is seeking a leader with the capacity, confidence, and experience to work with the State and local communities to turnaround lower performing schools. I have demonstrated this ability as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, chief academic officer, state administrator, and superintendent in several large urban school districts throughout the country. As a cabinet member who served three National Superintendents of the Year and as an essential member of a district team that won the Broad Prize in Educational Excellence while being highlighted for turnaround work by the USDOE and FLDOE, I will be able to provide the State of Michigan with the assurance that we can be trusted to improve student achievement and ensure financial transparency. We will regain the right to govern our school district independently.

I envision a school district where all students are college ready or well prepared for high level employment. This will occur because our students will learn to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and leaders. We will support and develop our current and future leaders and teachers, and support them with the right tools, curriculum and data systems, and wraparound services to address our students’ socioemotional challenges. Our students will experience the expansion and exposure of an arts education while gaining a greater appreciation for their culture and community. We will expand business partnerships for internships, while building the capacity of our parents and respecting their voice. Our students will be safe and learn through their mistakes by ensuring a progressive discipline model. We will restore the confidence of parents and their children who will return from charter and private schools.

The resurgence of Detroit is underway. As a School Board and superintendent team we will accelerate that progress and ensure its success.

Read Vitti’s full application, including his resume and references, in the document below. 

Is Lemmons leaving?

Detroit school board member Lemmons weighs leaving, slams colleagues he says listen to special interests

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Detroit Board of Education member LaMar Lemmons waves to the audience during "School Days," an evening of storytelling focused on the Detroit Public Schools hosted by Chalkbeat Detroit and The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers in March 2017

One of the most vocal voices on Detroit district’s school board says he’s frustrated with the impact he’s having on the board and is pursuing a different elected office.

LaMar Lemmons, whose two-year term will expire at the end of December, has filed to run in the August 6 Democratic primary special election for the Michigan State Senate District 2. The seat became vacant after Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) resigned in March after pleading guilty to theft involving a ghost employee receiving $23,000 for no work.

“I’m running because I couldn’t find any candidates to commit to the agenda of the Detroit Public Schools and the restoration of the funds that were pilfered from Detroit taxpayers and the DPS coffers over the decades,” Lemmons said.

Lemmons has been the most outspoken member of the new Detroit school board that took control of the city’s main school district in January 2017 after more than seven years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The current board was the first elected to run the new Detroit Public Schools Community District, which was created in 2016 to replace the debt-burdened Detroit Public Schools. The board’s seven members were elected to staggered terms with the two top vote-getters elected to six-year terms, the next three elected to four-year terms and two members elected to two-year terms.

One member elected to a six-year term was Lemmons’ wife, Georgia Lemmons, so even if he leaves the board, he’ll still be able to influence it.

Lemmons is the only member who served on the old school board. Its members were elected but had little power while emergency managers ran the district.

The old board often used its platform to sue the state and emergency managers on behalf of Detroit children and voters. Since joining the new board, Lemmons has continued to advocate for legal action against the state for damage to the district that occurred during emergency management, such as the poor maintenance of district buildings that led, in one case, to students being displaced from their school this year.

Lemmons said he’s disappointed that his fellow members and superintendent Nikolai Vitti haven’t joined him to seek compensation from the state. He wants them to sue the state for poor conditions of school buildings, and other matters dating back several years. The school board, he said, has poor “institutional memory.”

“For a first-year school board, I can think of no better school board,” he said. “The problem is there is no institutional memory and the tendency is for them to move forward and seek no redress for things in the past. … So sometimes the validity of my assertions are not taken. That includes the superintendent, and all my colleagues minus one,” his wife.

Lemmons said Vitti and the other board members are listening too much to people like Mayor Mike Duggan, as well as philanthropic and business leaders who Lemmons believes have conflicts of interest. They “are not for the children,” he said.

Duggan’s office declined comment.

Detroit board president Iris Taylor said the board is so successful because of its diversity, wealth of experience, and knowledge about the community and business sector.

“We appreciate the institutional knowledge that members bring to the table to help understand the framework and we find it to be beneficial, but it is not the exclusive determining factor for making decisions,” Taylor said in an email. “We do work well together and that’s because we are all on this board for the children. We have made a commitment to put children first.”

If elected to the state Senate, Lemmons said he wants to create policies to help people leaving prison he claims dropped out of school while the district was under emergency management, committed crimes and wound up incarcerated.

Lemmons said a “myriad” of candidates are interested in running for his school board seat, but no one has officially announced plans to run.

In the Senate race, he will face off with Democratic candidates Abraham Aiyash, Brian Banks, George Cushingberry Jr., Jeremy Henner, Adam Hollier, John Olumba and Joe Ricci in the primary election.

Lemmons acknowledges his candidacy is contingent on whether he can raise at least $100,000 in campaign money. Some of his opponents have been campaigning for about a year. He said his “significant name recognition” will help, but if he doesn’t find enough support, he will run for school board re-election.

The July 9 filing deadline will give him time to decide that, he said.

School board member Deborah Hunter-Harvill, an educator and former school superintendent who chairs the boards’ curriculum and academics subcommittee, also has a two-year term. She said she is running for re-election and plans to file a candidate petition this week.

“My work is not done yet,” she said. “I would feel like I’m walking away if I didn’t stay at least four years.”