Displaced Highland Park students find new schools

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Detroit — They used to be Polar Bears.

Now they’ll be Colts and Trail Blazers and Technicians and more. But if educators have their way, they also will embrace the changes that come with a new start.

For about 160 former students at Highland Park Renaissance Academy High School, Tuesday will be the first day they will start class scattered around districts in the Detroit area, including 72 Highland Park residents enrolled in Detroit Public Schools.

Renaissance, Highland Park’s last remaining high school, closed at the end of June, leaving students scrambling for new schools. The move, prompted by declining enrollment, came three years after the state took control of the Highland Park school district and turned it over to the Leona Group charter operator.

And while the summer break was a time of contention and frustration over the closure, leaders at schools in DPS, the Education Achievement Authority and other districts are preparing to help parents and students transition and get focused back on education.

“When you’re leaving somewhere, it can be tough, especially when you feel like it was your place,” said Kenyuano Jones, principal at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School at Northwestern, a DPS school. “This is going to be their home school. There isn’t going to be a rift.”

Jones said the school is working on bringing back wrestling and marching band programs, which have been on hiatus, because these programs were important to Highland Park Renaissance students. And thanks to funding from UAW-Ford, the school will have a refurbished gymnasium, pool, paint and weight training rooms to make the facility more welcoming.

“We’re not taking them from a school and pushing them into another school that is almost dead itself,” he said. “We wanted to make sure students had these programs.”

Kierra Jones, who is teaching 11th and 12th grade AP English, said she is prepared to handle any issues that might arise from the combining of schools.

“I do want to spend the first week working on team-building exercises,” said Kierra Jones, who is not related to the principal. “I know how tough it can be to go to a new school, especially when you don’t really have a choice.”

Perhaps even more of a challenge than easing the students’ transition will be making parents feel at home in a new district and new city, especially for families who have had generations attending Highland Park schools.

“We’ve called homes to welcome them, we’ve had enrollment fairs, specifically for the Highland Park community,” said Kenyuano Jones. “Any parent on Tuesday who comes in here will be able to ask me questions about whatever they want.”

Since 2012-13, when the Leona Group began operating the Highland Park district's schools, the number of students at the high school fell from nearly 400 to 160. The Highland Park Public School Academy System had 509 students last school year, according to state figures.

The schools have struggled for years with declining enrollment and persistent deficits. By early 2012, when the state stepped in, the district had an $11 million deficit, and enrollment had fallen from more than 3,000 in 2006 to less than 1,000. The Legislature approved $4 million in emergency aid to keep the district’s schools open that year. That followed a $4.2 million hardship loan from the state in August 2011.

Another school that will be getting Highland Park students is Central Collegiate Academy, in the state-run Education Achievement Authority.

Principal David Oclander, who is in his first year, has created a new position at the school, dean of culture, to help students adapt to the changes and to work on creating an environment where everyone feels safe.

Oclander came to teaching after 23 years in the Army, including three tours of duty overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq. He says he will pull from his military experiences when running the school.

“In places like Afghanistan and Iraq, if people don’t feel safe first, they are always in the flight or fight mode,” he said. “We want to make sure students can feel safe, and once they feel safe they can engage their executive functioning and learning abilities.”

Other military influences will come in the actual teaching. For example, the first day, students will be brought together for an explanation of what expectations teachers will have for them. There will be a new student code of conduct. And throughout the year, students will take part in a leadership skills class focused on teaching them good judgment and respect for one another.

As for any rivalries that exist, that gets left at the door on Tuesday, says Oclander.

“When I came here, I learned there were historic differences between Highland Park and this neighborhood, but we all agree that should be left in the past,” he said. “It should be more about serving the kids.”


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