Charter school company proving critics wrong; garners support from parents and former adversaries
HIGHLAND PARK — No parent chooses to send their child to a school where mice scamper through classrooms, where garbage fills the hallways and the school pool and bathroom tissue is rationed off and handed out only from the main office.
Yet for years that's what students in the former Highland Park School District were forced to endure on a daily basis. Parents and teachers complained, but nothing happened. It wasn't for lack of money. The public school district was spending nearly $20,000 per student — the highest in the state.
Things got so bad that the state appointed an emergency manager and eventually the school district was turned over to The Leona Group, a charter management company. The teachers unions complained. So did some parents and community activists, whose reaction was to protest because the status quo was being disrupted.
Gloria Liveoak was one of those people who complained. She actively lobbied against the Leona Group, and like many former Detroit Public Schools employees, thought charter schools were bad for students and the community at large.
Not anymore. Now she's not only working in one, she's promoting it as a good choice for parents. She's now a full-time parent liaison at the Highland Park Renaissance Academy and based on the cheers she got when a video of her was played at a press conference Tuesday, she's a favorite among teachers and parents.
You don't need to spend much time in the hallways or classrooms of the Renaissance Academy to see that the dedication and commitment to education is real and unencumbered by bureaucracy, administrative obstacles or obstructionists.
Whether it's Ruffin Green, the school's security guard, greeting you with a handshake as you walk into the building, or Superintendent Pamela Williams talking to students in the halls or Principal Carmen Willingham talking about renovations to the third floor of the building, it's clear there is a plan, a mission and a spirit to get things done.
"This school shows you what can become of some of our most troubled schools," said Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who has chronicled the transformation of the district for the past year.
To get a better sense of how bad it was and what $1 million in cleanup looks like, listen to the teachers, some of whom took significant pay cuts to stay, and to the parents who appreciate the efforts of those educators.
"Even after my kids graduate I'll still come back and help this school," said Davonda Huff, a parent-volunteer whose second-grade daughter and fifth-grade son both now have 4.0 GPAs. "I love this place and The Leona Group."
Things aren't perfect, and there still is a long way to go. But students and parents have hope for the future thanks to the choice they were given by a company that was willing to step in and improve a situation that had deteriorated for far too long.