In July 2012, it was announced that two for-profit charter school companies would be taking over two of Michigan’s failed school districts. On the western side of the state, Mosaica Education would be running the Muskegon Heights school district. And in south-eastern Michigan, in the center of Detroit, The Leona Group would be operating the Highland Park school district.[1]

Converting an entire school district to a system of charter schools was unprecedented at the time. This report details the conversion of Highland Park schools and is based on more than a year’s worth of visitations to the school and interviews with school leaders and staff members.

In Highland Park, the timeline of events resulted in the charter school company being given just five weeks to assess and clean Highland Park school buildings, to hire staff and to prepare to open the schools in the first week of September.

As discussed further in this paper, there is substantial evidence that the district’s facilities were mismanaged by the conventional district, along with many signs of academic neglect. Highland Park parents and students say that the schools have dramatically improved under new management. During the first year of The Leona Group’s management, the facilities have been cleaned, updated and maintained, and students are exhibiting learning growth. But staff members acknowledge that there is much more work to be done.

There are important lessons to be learned from Highland Park’s story, especially considering that about 50 Michigan districts are facing overspending crises, and some face the threat of financial emergency.[2] In recent years, Michigan has tried a number of tactics to turnaround schools that are failing either academically or financially, including state takeover and closing and dissolving districts by sending students to contiguous districts.[3]

The charter conversion model, or “charterization,” in Highland Park is yet another approach to deal with failing school districts. Understanding this process and the initial results for one district is an important step in the process of deciding how to best reform Michigan’s failing schools.