A few weeks before school began here, parents filed into the high school cafeteria to meet the people just hired to revamp one of the state's worst-performing school districts: their own.
They came with questions: What time would the school day start? What were these new uniforms they'd heard about? Would all the schools stay open? Would the same teachers be there? The same kids? Was there anything worth saving?
For years, financial and academic turmoil plagued Highland Park schools. The state of Michigan says the district ran at an operating deficit five of the last six years. Barely 800 kids still attended its three schools, and even those buildings were overgrown with weeds and tagged with graffiti.
There was a lot of cash coming in, more than $14,000 per student, but there weren't enough textbooks to go around. Standardized test scores were embarrassingly low; among 11th-graders, 10% scored proficient in reading and 5% proficient in math. Some kids went on to college, but nobody -- 0% -- of kids reached the ACT's college readiness benchmarks.
The district drew national attention this summer when the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a "first-of-its-kind" lawsuit against the state, education leaders and Highland Park schools for allegedly failing to teach students to read at grade level.
Now the state-appointed emergency financial manager had handed the district over to a charter school operator, the Leona Group, for a five-year contract worth more than $750,000. In a statement, the Michigan governor's office said it moved to address "a long overdue fiscal and academic crisis that was crippling the district" because it "can't and won't accept academic failure."
For some here, it was a hostile takeover. For others, a new hope.
The new superintendent, Pamela Williams, was born in Highland Park, the crowd heard. She'd just taken charge in the days before, but the few answers she had were clear: School starts at 8:15 a.m. All kids wear white shirts with black or blue pants. All three buildings -- the high school and two K-8 academies, stay open. Some teachers stay, but many would be new. If the charter operator did its jobs right, she said, the same kids would be there, and maybe some new ones.
"We're basically asking for your support and participation," Williams said.
She told parents they expected to have about 25 kids per class, and a core academic focus in schedules. Their beloved polar bear mascot would stay, and the buildings would be cleaned up. There would be football and basketball, but she wasn't yet sure whether there was equipment for a band. The school newspaper? The swimming pool? No. Maybe next year.
Some people looked disappointed. A couple of parents yelled. Williams said they weren't thinking about the past or who was to blame for the schools' troubles; she'd just started and wasn't even sure what the district had already been through. No officials at the meeting wanted to comment on the lawsuit.
Williams had a request: "When we call and ask you to come, we need you to be here."
The crowd applauded.
Highland Park is a small city adjacent to Detroit, about three square miles that were once a center of innovation. The city was home to Henry Ford's original Model T plant. Chrysler built its headquarters here in the 1920s but left in the early 1990s. The city's diverse, middle-class population ballooned to around 50,000 from the 1920s into the 1950s, then declined to about 11,000 in 2010. Its Beaux Arts-style library opened in 1926 but is now boarded up, empty. Last year, the city infamously tore out its street lights because it couldn't pay the electricity bill.
The ACLU was already researching school issues when it bumped into the little-known state law that required assistance for students who aren't proficient in reading according to state tests they take in fourth and seventh grade. It investigated the worst-performing school districts, said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, and could've targeted the lawsuit at any of them.
But the disorganization and low scores in Highland Park struck her. It was in this little city that they met students, younger and older, who couldn't read. The lawsuit says these students were "denied the instruction necessary to attain basic literacy skills."
Plaintiffs are identified only by their initials in the lawsuit, and none was willing to talk with CNN. The ACLU included a series of short letters schoolchildren wrote to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, just a few sentences that sometimes complained about the lack of books and working bathrooms.
One letter from a fourth-grader reads:
"This is what I what to do when I what grow up at Bussness lady And can you give my a favorite By helping me to work my way up to keep up Jobs."
In another, a Highland Park seventh-grader spelled his name incorrectly, the ACLU said. He wrote:
"You can make the school gooder by getting people that will do the Jod that is pay for get a football tame for the Kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a Other Jamtacher for the School get a lot of tacher."
The schools' failure doesn't land solely on parents, teachers, district or state school leaders, Moss said, but she thinks the lawsuit forces them to work together.
"There's lots of blame to go around," Moss said. "We're saying all the adults have failed (Highland Park kids)."
In the short term, she said, the ACLU wants learning conditions improved -- textbooks in classrooms, cleaned up buildings, functioning bathrooms and heating systems. It wants every kid to have an individual literacy test and an appropriate intervention implemented.
"We can't lose another year or two," she said. "If kids aren't learning to read, they're not reading to learn."