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Fighting For The Right To Literacy In Detroit

A young boy reading a book in a library. (Getty Images)
A young boy reading a book in a library. (Getty Images)


In 2016, seven families sued Michigan, claiming that the state failed to provide Detroit students with the most fundamental of skills — the ability to read.

In May of 2020, a federal appeals court ruled in their favor, saying schoolchildren have a right to a basic minimum education.

The historic ruling became the first time a federal court has asserted the right to read. Soon after the four-year legal battle ended, the state of Michigan settled its case with the families.

But Andrea Thompson, a Detroit schools college counselor, educator and one of the seven parents who sued, says the fight for educational equity is far from over. She recently detailed what more needs to be done in an op-ed in the nonprofit news publication Bridge Michigan.

Thompson’s son, Antonio Thompson, “did not receive a good education” due to a multitude of factors, including extreme temperatures in the school depending on the season and severe lack of books, she says. Some of the limited books were decades old, she says.

Special education classes were merged into general classrooms with no special education aids present, Thompson says. Some classrooms didn’t have enough desks for students, she says, and there were times when three to four academic classes were sent to the gymnasium to be babysat.

Jamarria Hall, one of the plaintiffs, told Here & Now in 2019 that he likened his high school experience to “prison or daycare.” He claimed the school didn’t provide efficient drinking water or bathroom facilities.

In 2015, less than 3% of students achieved college-acceptable scores in English and reading, the Guardian reported.

“We couldn’t get teachers to come work at such an under-resourced school. My son was miserable,” Thomspon says. “And so it’s just unfortunate that in America, zip codes matter when it comes to an education — and it shouldn’t.”

In 2016, Thompson quickly transitioned from frustrated parent to plaintiff. That year, the Flint water crisis was unfolding. She says people started to notice Darnell Earley, the emergency manager over the water crisis, was the same emergency manager of Detroit public schools at the time.

“So a number of teachers started to organize and bring all of us together. We shut down 97 schools,” Thompson says. “From there, lawyers came to Detroit and they said what was happening to our children was a crime.”

The settlement, which allocates $2.7 million for literacy efforts in the Detroit Public Schools District, doesn’t go far enough, Thompson says. In her op-ed, she details the need for more basic resources that Detroit kids don’t have access to, such as contemporary books, computers, internet access and a curriculum that encompasses African American literature and history.

The erosion of quality education in Detroit was disregarded until this lawsuit happened, she says. She still carries “mommy guilt” for not realizing earlier, she says.

Illiteracy feeds the school-to-prison pipeline and prevents people from becoming engaged civic participants, she argues. Without the ability to read and find employment, Detroit teenagers ended up in the streets and violence increased, she says.

“If a child cannot read, they cannot fill out a job application. You cannot be a janitor if you cannot read the labels on the solutions to mix. You cannot vote. You cannot even get a driver’s license if you cannot read,” she says.

In the four years since the lawsuit began, Thompson has focused on building a network of organizers. She started Ladies Entrepreneur Empowerment Circle, a 5,000-member strong group of Black women entrepreneurs in Detroit.

The organizers’ purpose is twofold — boosting wealth within their families and communities while demanding a better education for the city’s young people, she says.

At 21 years old, Thompson’s son is still reeling from the mental and emotional trauma that came with his poor experience in the Detroit public school system.

“He didn’t get the proper education to be able to go to the college of his dream,” she says. “He just has a lot of trauma he has to heal from, and so I’m allowing him to do that.”

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.