Last year, Highland Park schools were out of control, says Mia, an eighth-grade student. "Because we did what we want. We didn't have enough teachers." And, her friend Frankie added, there were a lot of fights.
"We had combined classrooms," Mia said. "That means like 60 students in one class."
This year, the girls say, is very different.
"They teach us," Frankie said.
"They actually have lesson plans," Mia added. "They actually have a plan. They actually have steps. They actually show us the structure of how you do this and how you do that."
The way Mia and Frankie describe Highland Park schools during the 2011-12 school year is similar to allegations raised in a lawsuit filed against the school system by the American Civil Liberties Union. In the lawsuit, the ACLU alleges that students were packed into classrooms, and that many teachers weren't teaching students.
But the ACLU filed its lawsuit less than nine weeks after the management of Highland Park schools changed. In May 2012, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to oversee the school district. The emergency manager selected a charter school company, the Leona Group, to run the district.
What this means, practically, is that the Highland Park district is a new school system, run by administrators brought in from other Leona public charter schools. Over the summer, the Highland Park district became Highland Park Renaissance Academy. In just a few months, administrators had to interview and hire teachers, clean up school buildings and reconcile student records.
Due to the ACLU lawsuit, Highland Park administrators and teachers won't comment about how this year compares to last. However, changes are obvious. Student average test scores are posted outside of each classroom so that teachers, parents and students know how the class is doing. Teachers also regularly highlight exceptionally good student work, in an effort to encourage students to achieve.
This year if you don't do your homework, Mia and Frankie said in unison, "You get a phone call home, and then the second time you get written up."
Last year, if you didn't do homework, they said, "you just get a zero."
Staff members are also striving to make Highland Park schools serve as neighborhood schools. Every month, parents come in for "Muffins with Mom," or "Doughnuts with Dad." Just before winter break, the Highland Park Fire Department came in for a "Student of the Month" lunch to honor students who had shown remarkable improvement.
There is nothing wrong with the motivation behind the ACLU lawsuit. Students attending public schools should be assured some standard of quality. But in this case, the ACLU has selected the wrong target.
The Leona Group and its employees are not responsible for the Highland Park district's failings in 2011-12, or in previous years. If anything, they are the one team that has the ability to fix the previously failed system and to provide a quality education to Highland Park students.
In its suit, the ACLU notes that during 2011-12, only 35 percent of fourth-grade students and only 25 percent of seventh-grade students scored proficient on the state reading test. By these measurements, sadly, there are plenty of other low-achieving schools for the ACLU to choose from to make its point.
The nearby River Rouge District, for example, reported lower scores. During the same year, just 23 percent of River Rouge fourth graders and 17 percent of seventh graders scored proficient or better on the state reading test. The district has had a contentious year, and one former official admitted to accepting a bribe.
Why not drop the lawsuit against Highland Park? The school system has changed, and Mia and Frankie say they'd recommend their new school to friends. In an attempt to make a point, the ACLU is eating up time and resources that could be better spent educating Highland Park students.