Executive Summary*

This brief examines the series of events that lead to the Highland Park school district being converted to a system of charter public schools in 2012. Used as a strategy to help the district eliminate its large fiscal debt while still providing resident students with a local public school option, Highland Park's charter conversion is one of the first of its kind in the state
and even the nation.

Michigan has about 50 school districts operating with budget deficits. The state has tried several reform measures to deal with fiscal and academic failures, including state takeover of individual schools and the dissolution of entire districts. Highland Park's experience may provide lessons for policymakers and school officials attempting to deal with similar issues in other Michigan school districts.

This paper chronicles Highland Park's enrollment decline and financial mismanagement, along with the students' poor academic performance. State data and in-person interviews, a result of more than a year's worth of visitations to Highland Park schools by the author, are used to provide an accurate representation of the district's operations.

During the first year of charter school operation, students demonstrated significant learning gains, with some grades posting academic growth far above the average Michigan student. The charter school company, which had just five weeks to prepare to operate the district before the start of the 2012-13 school year, has invested more than $1 million in the schools, and has cleaned the previously filthy facilities.

This paper is a companion piece to "The Highland Park Transformation," a short documentary video featuring interviews with Highland Park students, parents and teachers about the district's conversion. That video can be found online here: www.mackinac.org/highlandpark.

* Citations provided in the main text.