The struggle with reading -- and what that means for other types of learning -- rings true to Johnathan Shearrod. He was a school leader and mediocre student before graduating from Highland Park schools in 2002, but looking back, he said he knows it was a poor education. Some teachers cared, he said, but they couldn't take copies of "1984" home because there weren't enough books.
When he met kids from other districts during student government trips, they talked about AP English or AP calculus, about how the Advanced Placement tests would save them so much trouble in college. He didn't know what AP meant but didn't want to look ignorant by admitting it in front of them.
Once, he said, he passed an exam on the Civil War -- not because of what he'd learned in class, but because of what he'd heard on TV. He hung the test on the fridge.
"It was my grandmother and PBS that got me through," he said.
Later on, in college at Lake Superior State University -- a school in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where Shearrod knew nobody -- he spent hours on the phone with his high school friends. Everybody was struggling in college. Some wanted to drop out. Eventually, some did.
Shearrod enrolled in remedial math, classes that cost money but didn't count toward graduation. In the writing center, it blew his mind when a tutor explained the differences between their, there and they're.
"You realize 'I'm here because I'm stupid,' " he said. "At the end of the day, I told myself 'I can either cry' -- which I did -- 'and go home. Or ... you can get your ass in gear.' "
So, he said, he asked for help. He stayed in to study while others went out. He learned that rewriting his notes helped him retain information. His grades crept higher, but it never felt easy.
"Drive and hard work would only get me to mediocrity," he said. "It's like starting the 100-meter dash 13 seconds late, and the race is only seven seconds."
Ten years since graduation, he's finished his bachelor's degree and a master's degree. He spent a couple of years with the Peace Corps in Niger, working as a youth educator. He lives in Detroit and works for a nonprofit. There are still times when he stumbles on a task and wonders: Why do I not know how to do this?
Since school started, there's been little movement on the ACLU lawsuit. It was scheduled for a technical hearing this month, an ACLU spokeswoman said. Moss said bringing in a charter school operator is not enough to assure change for the kids, or to ensure state laws are enforced.
"There's been this focus on governance -- a focus on bringing in an emergency manager or bringing in a charter company -- but there's not been a focus on what kind of academic interventions need to happen in order to really have a quality difference in the kind of education the kids are getting," she said.
Shearrod said he thinks Highland Park schools have probably gotten worse since he'd graduated, and laws should've halted its free fall. More than any other changes, the lawsuit makes him hopeful that the schools will improve.
"It takes one person brave enough to scream, on their soapbox, at the top of their lungs, into the microphone," he said. "Until you get the right person or group of people to hear it, does anyone ever hear you?"
Since school started after Labor Day, some Highland Park teachers have returned to their classes, but more are new, said Williams superintendent of the newly named Highland Park Renaissance Academy. Teachers are gathering baseline data so they can address kids' academic needs individually, she said. Williams estimates the charter school system will spend about $7,000 per pupil -- half what was spent before -- and she's confident it will get results come test time.
"Our investment is solely on the teaching and, well, a couple with the renovations, because, again, you cannot educate a child with ceiling tiles falling," she said.
Williams said she has no comment on the lawsuit.
"My energy is focused on educating our children," she said, "whether there's a lawsuit or not."
Some parents said they're already seeing changes. The charter school operators added new lights and fresh coats of paint. They sealed off parts of buildings where kids used to cause trouble. There aren't police cars on the corners anymore.
Karen Johnson graduated from Highland Park schools, and her 16-year-old son, Kyle, is enrolled there now. She works flexible shifts at a home improvement store in the suburbs, and isn't always around to drive him to school or robotics club. They live close enough for him to walk, or catch a ride.
"The lawsuit is legit," Johnson said. "They spent more time just getting the kids under control."
But one month into the school year, the buildings are starting to look better and kids don't linger in the hallways when they should be in class. She hears kids in detention are doing their schoolwork, and working on the buildings. She said she likes seeing the teachers and principals at football games. She loves that they recognize her, and know her son's name.
Kyle's attitude has changed, too.
"He was doing good in class, but he'd be like, 'I don't feel like going to school today,' " she said. "Now it's, 'We've got to leave early. I want to make sure I get there on time.' "
It's hasn't been entirely smooth; Johnson said she believes the Leona Group inherited a mess. There still aren't enough books, so the focus is more on short stories and articles. Kyle and his friends heard only recently that some classes they've taken might not apply to graduation requirements. Plenty of parents -- especially some she saw at the meeting this summer -- are never around. She said she's curious to see how many of the new teachers stick around.