The tiny Highland Park School District has already been through the wringer. Now its sole remaining school is bracing for another major disruption. Frustrated with the for-profit charter operator that runs the schools, district leaders are considering proposals from other operators.
Highland Park is a three-square-mile enclave, an island within the city of Detroit, and its school system has been subjected to many of the same forces that plague Detroit schools: declining enrollment, mismanagement, a revolving cast of state-appointed emergency managers.
Most families in Highland Park have already sent their kids elsewhere. But a few opt to enroll in the district’s sole remaining school, a K-8 charter school with 369 students.
The plan to change management companies has angered some parents, who say the switch to a new company would be disruptive for the school’s students. But a new crop of district leaders insist that this is the first step in what would likely be a long recovery.
“Change is uncomfortable, but sometimes change makes things better,” said Alexis Ramsey, president of the Highland Park city school board.
It’s the latest example of a school district risking renewed turmoil in order to undo decisions made by state-appointed emergency managers. Highland Park is one of several impoverished, majority-Black cities — including Pontiac, Flint, Benton Harbor, and Muskegon Heights — where the state took control of the struggling local school district and imposed drastic changes in school finance and governance.
The Leona Group, a for-profit charter management company that operates more than a dozen largely low-performing schools in Detroit, was hired by an emergency manager to take over Highland Park’s embattled school district. Today it runs the sole remaining school, Highland Park Renaissance Academy (formerly Barber Elementary School).
The company was unable to staunch an enrollment hemorrhage that began soon after state oversight began in 2012. Public confidence in the district was further damaged when a school board member was caught stealing $200,000 from the district in 2014.
Enrollment was gutted by the Great Recession, plummeting from nearly 4,000 in 2008 to fewer than 900 in 2013, after the state appointed an emergency manager for the district. The decline continued under state oversight, leveling out at fewer than 400. The high school was closed and demolished in 2015.
The change in management has been in the works since last year, when the Highland Park district was released from state control, putting decision-making power back in the hands of the locally elected school board. Ramsey sharply criticized the Leona Group in an interview at the time.
“We want to move away from that for-profit model, and bring someone in who’s doing a self-management type model, so those dollars that Leona takes off the top will now go back into the school,” she said. The extra money, she added, would “go back into the books, go back into the teachers, bringing sports back, arts back, and all those types of things that are gone because of the pay they get off the top just because they’re the managers.”
The Leona Group takes 9.5 percent of the school’s revenue as a management fee, which would amount to about $400,000 out of $4.2 million in revenue this year.
Only 8 percent of students at the school passed state exams last year, fewer than the Detroit district and far below the state average. The school also lags behind in student growth.
Carmen Willingham, superintendent at the school, says the Leona Group helped prop up Highland Park’s schools in a time of need, and she says they are working to improve scores.
“The Leona Group was there when no one else wanted to,” she said. “No one else submitted a proposal except for The Leona Group in 2012.
“We’re making growth and of course we know that we need to improve our tests scores,” she added. “At the end of the day, who doesn’t?”
This time around, five companies have submitted proposals to operate Highland Park Renaissance: The Leona Group, Promise Schools, C.L. Moore & Associates, Accel Schools, and Midwest Management Group Inc. All are for-profit school operators except Promise Schools.
The district, which is the authorizer of the Highland Park Public Schools Academy, will not make the decision directly. Instead, it will come from the seven-member school board of the charter school. Still, the district has the power to veto any decision by refusing to grant a new charter. And Ramsey, who’s been a vocal critic of Leona, is president of the district school board.
Jamilla Edwards, a former school board member with a grandchild who attends the district, said parents would leave en masse if the district chooses a different charter company.
“Can this district operate if 100 students leave?” she asked the school board, not expecting an answer.
When emergency managers shifted control of the school, “teachers were displaced, and students, and it was horrendous,” she recalled. “I don’t want us to make the same mistake twice.”