Schools pitch students, parents from Highland Park

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Highland Park – — Highland Park Renaissance Academy High School was packed with representatives from schools across Metro Detroit on Monday, there to woo parents and students after the district announced the school was closing.

The representatives — from Melvindale to Madison Heights, along with Detroit Public Schools, the Education Achievement Authority and others — displayed their pamphlets and souvenir pens, and other trinkets at tables set up on two floors.

The academy will close its doors by the end of the month, the district announced May 28, leaving students scrambling for new schools.

Ciara Bunkley, 16, in the ninth grade at the high school, visited many of the tables, searching for a new school.

"It's very sad because I've been attending this school since it was a middle school and I will miss my teachers because they made me feel welcome and at home," said Ciara. "A lot of us who live in Highland Park need this school. To just branch off to a new school is out of my comfort zone."

Three years after the state took control of the Highland Park school district and turned it over to a charter operator, the high school is closing, the district announced last month.

"Our enrollment declined significantly and it is not financially feasible to continue with the high school," Don Weatherspoon, the district's emergency manager, told reporters before parents toured the tables Monday.

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.

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

A letter was sent to parents explaining the decision and inviting them to the community meeting Monday, where they were treated to lemonade, cookies and a hot buffet. Weatherspoon said there also would be a raffle of several tablets.

Terry Stanton, a Department of Treasury spokesman, said no decision has been made about the district's grades K-8. He said bus passes will be part of the package offered to the displaced Highland Park students.

Transportation was one of the main concerns for parent Shatriece Britton, who has a daughter in 10th grade.

"This is the only high school left because they closed all the other ones," she said. "When I found out about it, I was upset and my feelings were hurt. I don't have transportation, so I'm going to have to find a school that provides transportation. I have a lot to think about."

Detroit Public Schools had a strong presence at the meeting, with about 10 schools represented.

"Our only goal is to ensure the families will receive an exceptional educational experience and all the services we can provide," said district spokesman Steve Wasko. "We know families have choices and within DPS, we've identified a school closest to this one, and that's Detroit Collegiate Prep at Northwestern on West Grand Boulevard and 12th Street. We also have 10 other DPS high schools."

Mario Morrow, spokesman for the EAA, had a similar pitch.

"We'd love to have these student join the EAA," he said. "We've got two great high schools — Pershing High School and Central High School — and we've got staff from both schools here."

Randy Speck, superintendent of Madison Public Schools in Madison Heights, said he was there to provide parents with "great options."

"We can do that through our different programs and athletics options," he said. "These kids need a good place to go, and we want to be that option."

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.

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