Highland Park’s high school to close as enrollment dips

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Three years after the state took control of the Highland Park school district and turned it over to a charter operator, the city’s high school will close next month, officials said Thursday.

Low enrollment at Highland Park Renaissance Academy High School forced the closure, said Don Weatherspoon, the district’s emergency manager. Since 2012-13, when the Leona Group began operating the district’s schools, the number of students at the high school has fallen from nearly 400 to 160.

Overall, the Highland Park Public School Academy System has 509 students this school year, according to state figures.

In a release, Weatherspoon said Leona Group officials told him “they can no longer provide high school students with the full benefits of a well-rounded high school experience given the currently low enrollment.”

Weatherspoon said high school students from Highland Park can enroll in nearby Detroit Public Schools, another neighboring district, a charter school or the state-run Education Achievement Authority. DPS will be the students’ home district.

“They can go to Detroit Public Schools or any school they choose that runs a 9-12 system,” he said.

A letter is being sent to parents explaining the decision, and a community meeting is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. June 8 at the Ernest T. Ford Recreation Center, 10 Pitkin, in Highland Park.

“We’ve had to make a difficult decision after months of studying our enrollment, and we had to make the determination that it’s no longer feasible to operate a high school, and we discussed this with the Leona Group, the Department of the Treasury and the executive staff,” Weatherspoon said.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the state charter school association, said the association would help parents and students find “quality schools nearby.”

“If any school is not succeeding academically or financially, the students need to move to a school that’s performing at a higher level,” Quisenberry said. “That’s true in Highland Park, and it’s true in every community in the state. Students in Highland Park only have one chance at an education, and they deserve an education at a quality school.”

DPS said it will work with displaced Highland Park students.

“We will work closely with the families to ensure an exceptional educational experience with a smooth transition that addresses each student's individual needs,” said DPS spokesman Steve Wasko.

Terry Stanton, a Department of Treasury spokesman, said no decision has been made about grades K-8.

“We’re still evaluating where the district will be based on enrollment,” he said. “We will continue to work with parents and families to make sure they have all the information they need to make the best educated decisions on where they will be in the fall.”

Stanton said bus passes will be part of the package offered to Highland Park students. He also said DPS and charter schools probably will have tables set up during the June 8 community meeting “where they can present their best case for why parents may want to chose their facility.”

Highland Park’s 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.

Last month, Gov. Rick Snyder chose Don Weatherspoon to return as emergency manager of the Highland Park schools. He replaced his brother, Gregory Weatherspoon, who had been EM of the troubled Wayne County district and the Muskegon Heights schools since October 2013.

Snyder named Steve Schiller, a former Muskegon Heights educator, as that district’s new emergency manager.

Both districts were turned over to charter operators in 2012, essentially creating new districts and having the old districts collect property taxes and service past debts of about $12 million each.