When children can’t read, schools have deprived them of a constitutional right

Every Chicago school child should get the same quality instruction and resources you’ll find at my kids’ suburban schools — veteran teachers and reading specialists, libraries and librarians.

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First grade teacher Randy Foust reads to her students at Washington Irving Elementary School.

First-grade teacher Randy Foust reads to her students at Washington Irving Elementary School. in this 2017 photo.

Maria Cardona/Sun-Times

When Jamarria Hall thinks back on his time in high school, he doesn’t reminisce about his teenage glory days. What he remembers about his school in Detroit is collapsing ceiling tiles, missing textbooks, broken water fountains and soggy carpeting.

Hall and six of his Detroit Public School peers sued the state of Michigan four years ago, saying they had been denied the right to an equitable education — most specifically, access to basic literacy.  Recently, they won. 

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In late April, in the case of Gary B v. Whitmer, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit declared, “The plaintiffs have a fundamental right to a basic minimum education, meaning one that can provide them with a foundational level of literacy.” The settlement calls for an additional $94.5 million in state funding to Detroit schools for literacy support. 

I’m a high school librarian with a background in teaching reading and English Language Arts, and I hope this ruling sets a strong precedent that every public school in America — in big cities such as Chicago, in poor rural communities and elsewhere — must have the resources to teach our children essential literacy skills.

The ruling came to mind for me as I worked with my kindergarten-age son during this age of remote learning. He has been learning to read, and his suburban Chicago public school has the resources to do so.

Veteran teachers, a school library and librarian, a reading specialist, ample books and other classroom materials are staples in our school district. My son has never complained about a lack of heat, soggy carpet or dirty bathrooms. The same should be true for all of our students, yet many of them attend school in crumbling buildings, as Hall and his peers did in Detroit.

I saw this first-hand in the three high schools where I worked on Chicago’s South Side as a teacher and then a librarian. Two of those schools were neighborhood high schools, and some of the students had trouble reading. As high school students, they could not read high school texts.

I could hear it when they read aloud — they would not sound out words they didn’t know, and skipped over them instead. 

Other students hated reading — they had been labeled a “struggling reader” for so long that they firmly believed they could not improve. 

I saw a disinvestment in literacy even outside the neighborhood high schools. While I was a librarian at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a selective enrollment school, I would ask freshmen during library orientation to raise their hands if their elementary school had a library and a librarian. 

I asked this every year —and every year, the number of hands raised was fewer and fewer. Now, only 20% of CPS schools have a school librarianReading specialists are even more scarce.

Students in Detroit, Chicago, and elsewhere should benefit from the same resources that my children are privileged to have in their suburban public schools. Their schools are not shiny and full of new computers or furniture — but they are not falling apart either, with leaky ceilings and dirty bathrooms. And their schools are staffed by veteran teachers and reading specialists, with libraries and librarians — all of which play a role in fostering literacy as soon as a child enters school.

That is the kind of school that Hall and his peers fought to have. Yet policymakers and politicians fail, time and again, to replicate this simple formula on a national scale, for all of our children. 

Hall and his peers brought their plight to federal court and won. It’s hard to predict the long-term impact of the ruling, given the immense financial hardship on public schools in Detroit, and elsewhere, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it’s not hard to predict that America will lose if we continue to shortchange so many children by failing to provide them with an educational setting that fosters something basic and essential: Literacy.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park.  She taught in the Chicago Public Schools for 15 years and is Nationally Board Certified.

Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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