Highland Park schools were failing, but a charter school company is turning things around
A few years ago, the school district in Highland Park received nearly $20,000 per student, the highest in the state and 70 percent more than the average Michigan district. Despite receiving plenty of money from the state, the schools were filthy, walls and ceilings were collapsing and rodents were running through the building. The district was overspending, which led to a massive deficit, an emergency manager, and eventual switch to a charter public school system.
Today, a year and a half after The Leona Group took over the schools, fundamental and significant changes have taken place. The district has stopped overspending, the schools have been cleaned up, test scores have improved, and, most importantly, students and parents are happier. Below is a short documentary of the transformation and an in-depth policy report detailing how the district was turned around.
This brief examines the series of events that lead to the Highland Park school district being converted to a system of charter public schools in 2012. Used as a strategy to help the district eliminate its large fiscal debt while still providing resident students with a local public school option, Highland Park's charter conversion is one of the first of its kind in the state and even the nation.
Michigan has about 50 school districts operating with budget deficits. The state has tried several reform measures to deal with fiscal and academic failures, including state takeover of individual schools and the dissolution of entire districts. Highland Park's experience may provide lessons for policymakers and school officials attempting to deal with similar issues in other Michigan school districts.
This paper chronicles Highland Park's enrollment decline and financial mismanagement, along with the students' poor academic performance. State data and in-person interviews, a result of more than a year's worth of visitations to Highland Park schools by the author, are used to provide an accurate representation of the district's operations.
During the first year of charter school operation, students demonstrated significant learning gains, with some grades posting academic growth far above the average Michigan student. The charter school company, which had just five weeks to prepare to operate the district before the start of the 2012-13 school year, has invested more than $1 million in the schools, and has cleaned the previously filthy facilities.