In 2016, Detroit students filed a lawsuit against the state of Michigan alleging that the state denied Detroit Public School children a basic education by failing to teach them to read. The settlement initially awarded money directly to the plaintiffs and some money to the school district. It also required the governor to propose legislation to provide more money to DPSCD to support literacy efforts in the District. The legislation finally passed, under Democratic leadership, last year requiring the District to spend the $94.4 million dollar award by September 30, 2027. Under the settlement terms negotiated in 2020, there was also a requirement to create a 15 member Detroit Literacy Task Force composed of DPSCD parents, school district staff, teachers (represented by their Union), students and community members.
In the spring of 2023, as stipulated by the lawsuit settlement, the Task Force conducted six community meetings, some in person and some virtual, and one listening session with students, to gather input on how the money should be spent in the next 3 years. Three 482Forward members were a part of the Task Force: Reverend Larry Simmons, Ines de Jesus and Helena Lazo. These meetings were held from August 2023 to October 11, 2023. From October to December the Task Force met to compile a list of recommendations to be submitted to DPSCD superintendent, Dr. Vitti, who will have final say on which recommendations to adopt.
Many 482Forward members attended the six community meetings and put forward the recommendation that two-thirds of the funds be used, in the next three years, supporting reading instruction in the first grade and the other third be applied in providing targeted intervention to students in other grades who are reading below grade level. Why focus on first grade? For two reasons: in Michigan first grade is the first universally required grade for school attendance, thereby offering a universal impact across all elementary schools and neighborhoods in the city. Secondly, studies show that the earlier grades are pivotal in providing the fundamental reading skills that will allow students to succeed in subsequent grades.
The recommendations made by 482Forward are grounded on findings of the study, conducted by its research team, that focus on answering the question “Why aren’t our 3rd graders reading at grade level?” We came to the conclusion that is critically important to focus on early grade reading instruction provided by teachers who are using methodology based on the science of reading, i.e., explicitly teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension, and with culturally appropriate reading materials and interventions. Students learn to read in the earlier grades so that they are able to read to learn in the upper grades.
Let us be courageous, strategic and bold in this moment. We wish we could do everything that was recommended at the community meetings but we cannot with the money this settlement offers. We can jump start a systemic change on the path to literacy that money, pedagogy, and community can create by starting with first graders.
We urge Dr. Vitti to accept the recommendations that have systemic impact and sustainability after the settlement money is exhausted. We believe that 482Forward’s recommendations meet this criteria. Equity demands literacy. Literacy demands we start early and stay focused. Our fight for fair and equitable funding of education in Michigan and our fight for improved literacy in our state are intrinsically connected.