At this high-achieving Detroit elementary school, ...

At this high-achieving Detroit elementary school, parents and teachers fear a state reading mandate will still leave kids behind

First-grades focus on reading in their Chrysler Elementary School classroom in Detroit.

By Damon Mitchell

On a Friday afternoon earlier this month, Gwendolyn Harris recited vowel sounds from her brightly decorated classroom overlooking a grassy expanse of Detroit’s Lafayette Plaisance Park. First-graders listened as Harris directed them to observe her tongue and lip movements for each sound, then wrote the matching letters on their worksheets.

With each pronunciation, Harris slowed the tempo of her speech for clarity. Before long, the exercise ended and the room went silent as the students moved to a small carpet at the front of the classroom, waiting patiently. Next up: a reading of The Little Red Pen, a book about an overworked writing utensil getting some help from other school supplies.

Chrysler Elementary, a public elementary school in the Lafayette Park neighborhood, has made a name for itself as one of the city’s most improved in math and English language arts. Energized leadership from Principal Wendy Shirley and caring teachers inspire fierce support from an engaged parent community.

But despite meaningful achievements, a new state law has parents and teachers worried marginalized kids will get left behind — at Chrysler, and across Detroit.

Passed in 2016, the Read by Third Grade law went into effect for the first time this fall. It calls for holding back many third-graders reading more than one grade level behind, determined after testing this spring.

The law, which mirrors reading requirements in more than a dozen other states, is hotly debated in education circles (and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has called for getting rid of it). Proponents say it’s needed to make sure students move beyond “learning to read” and begin “reading to learn” — not attaining reading proficiency by the end of third grade makes students more likely to not finish high school. But critics of the law see making students repeat a grade, or “retention,” as a penalty with severe consequences for kids, and think the state should instead be investing more in early reading intervention. 

At Chrysler, it’s prompted concerns that Michigan isn’t considering the inequities facing black youth in its policy decisions and distribution of resources.

First-grade teacher Gwendolyn Harris works with students on reading at Chrysler Elementary School in Detroit, Oct. 4, 2019. Credit: Damon Mitchell

Eradicating inequity, or creating it?

Less than 45% of Michigan third-graders passed the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress literacy test, an exam used to measure student proficiency. Only about 12%of third-graders in the majority black Detroit Public Schools Community District passed the test last year, despite the district’s reform efforts that led to  its largest year-over year gains since the test was introduced in 2015. 

Officials estimate that 5% of third-graders statewide could be held back under the new law, according to Chalkbeat. 

While the consequences of the third-grade reading law aren’t exclusive to black students, they’re at particular risk.

“African-American students underperform their white peers by at least 29% in all tested grades and subjects,” said Brian R. Gutman, director of external relations at The Education Trust-Midwest. “Those numbers are unacceptable.”

Statewide, black students are far more likely to live in-high-poverty neighborhoods, which affects school achievement outcomes. 

“What we know is that students walk into the classroom with different needs,” Gutman said. “Particularly for low-income students and other historically underserved communities, that means that they might be walking into an elementary classroom with less early learning opportunities.” 

High-poverty nonwhite school districts also receive less per-pupil funding than both poor and wealthy white districts. Gutman said the funding inequity underscores the concern that a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work for marginalized students. 

“A great number of the students in [Detroit] are challenged by the fact that their income levels are not sufficient to be able to meet all of the needs that the child might have. [For example,] transportation is always a consideration,” said Yvette Anderson, a community activist whose granddaughter is a third-grader at Chrysler Elementary. “You can’t throw a program out without looking at all the aspects of it.”

Finding success through community schooling

Over the summer, Chrysler sent letters to parents from the district about the reading bill. The school is committed to educating parents on the impact of the law, Shirley said. 

Chrysler Elementary is the highest performing school in mathematics in Detroit. In English and Language Arts, 58.8% of third-graders are proficient in English, significantly higher than the statewide rate and more than five times higher than the district as a whole. The school had a 22% increase in ELA and math proficiency over the last two years. 

Last school year, Chrysler had a 14 to 1 student-teacher ratio and a 94% attendance rate. According to the Michigan Department of Education, all of the school’s teachers were qualified in their assigned subject areas, too.

The school is also known for its enrichment opportunities outside the classroom. Its chess club has collected over a dozen trophies. One parent said her daughter, now in high school, beat Mayor Mike Duggan during his first term. 

For decades, Chrysler Elementary has had a reputation as an academic stronghold, Shirley, who joined the school in 2012, told Detour.

“My mother tried to enroll me here in 1967,” she said.

While district administrators credit the school’s recent testing success to a change in culture and curriculum, the improved proficiency rates could in part be attributed to a decrease in the number of tested students due to shrinking third-, fourth- and fifth-grade enrollment

Chrysler Elementary is an application school, where prospective students are required to apply for admission. Most grades require a reference

Still, Shirley’s leadership efforts seem like a strong factor in student achievement. A natural provider who’s known for running Chrysler Elementary as a community, Shirley said education comes first, but that parental involvement is key.

Shirley is upfront with parents about what the school expects from them. And she sets an example by going the extra mile, whether dropping off backpacks, visiting parents in the hospital, purchasing clothes for students or making house calls when kids don’t show up for class. 

For many parents, the concern is mutual. When Shirley was dealing with serious health issues, she said they rallied to her side, providing her with gift baskets and comfort items to make sure her needs were met.

Often times, the parents of Chrysler Elementary treats their kids’ classmates as their own children. 

Men from the Dad’s Club often greet students in the mornings when they enter the building. Chrysler Elementary has a team of dedicated grandparents that donates school supplies. The school has a clothing swap initiative where parents can exchange uniforms with each other, too. 

“That’s what families do,” Shirley said.

First-grade students at Chrysler review literacy exercises and passages from The Little Red Pen. Credit: Damon Mitchell

How the state reading law could leave kids behind — or get them locked up

Anderson described the school as a nurturing environment where the teachers are accessible and the administrators know the students by name. This sense of community, she said, is an example of what is needed to assist students who will be negatively impacted by Michigan’s Read by Third Grade law.

“I want people to hear and know about the great kids that we have in the City of Detroit,” said Anderson. “It’s not the poor little Detroit kids. Give us the resources. Give us the input and our output will meet and match.”

Despite the higher reading scores at Chrysler, where the population is over 90% black, a number of students could still be forced to repeat the grade if they don’t get a qualifying exemption. 

“I think it’ll always be a chase [to keep up] with the state,” said Capri Scott, a fourth-grade teacher at Chrysler, about the inequities of the third-grade reading law. 

Scott also pointed to a potential longer-term consequence of the law. She believes it will add another chute to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a trend where students are pushed out of schools and end up in the juvenile justice system. In Detroit, where inequality is rampant, some residents say that kids face intentional disinvestment, then are punished for it. 

In a report examining a similar reading law in Florida, researchers found that grade retention disportionately increased the likelihood of suspensions and disciplinary incidents among black and low-income students, some of the factors that lead to expulsion and leave kids far more likely to end up incarcerated

“I think [the reading law is] going to open up a can of worms that we’re not prepared for,” Scott said.

While hopeful that DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is on the right track in preparing for the new requirements, Scott said she doesn’t think parents understand the severity. 

“We’re still going to have work to do,” she said. 

damon mitchell

Damon Mitchell is a fellow in the inaugural cohort of Detour Detroit’s Emerging Voices program, designed to tell the story of Detroit’s present and future in the voice of its residents. Mitchell is a native of Detroit’s west side, writing about the Brightmoor and Lafayette Park neighborhoods during his fellowship. Follow him on Twitter @damonmtll_.