No Easy Answers in Highland Park

Students continue to flee troubled district

Educational challenges linger in Highland Park, nearly four years after the distressed school district was taken over by the Leona Group, a charter management company. A year after being forced to close the district’s only high school, the newly named Highland Park Public School Academy System struggles to retain students.

New management literally cleaned up the school facility’s filthy mess, which included a swimming pool full of garbage and rodents in the buildings. The first round of reading and math tests showed improved test scores, but early indicators of success highlighted by the Mackinac Center have not yet led to a remarkable breakthrough.

Detroit Metro Times columnist Curt Guyette recently homed in on the problems, pointing to tardy financial reporting from the original Highland Park district, which remains only to pay back funds borrowed by the old regime.

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Guyette also highlighted the district’s enrollment, which has shrunk by two-thirds over the past four years. A closer look at state data raises more questions than answers. Most of the loss in students comes from Detroit residents who had once opted into Highland Park through the Schools of Choice program. Not surprisingly, most students lost have been at the high school level.

The enrollment trend is not heartening, and warrants further investigation. By the Leona Group’s internal count, the district gained 12 students between last fall and the 2016 spring semester, somewhat stemming the loss.

In seeking to explain the origin of the district’s woes that led to emergency management, Guyette’s column ultimately misses the mark. He falls back on questionable research in an attempt to exonerate previous management. He quotes and then attempts to rebut an observation made in a June 2015 Michigan Capitol Confidential story about the high school’s closure:

“The collapse of Highland Park schools isn’t a tale of a poor district in financial distress due to a lack of money. It’s about financial incompetence and corruption of the school district’s administrators.”

To rebut the quote, Guyette turned to a 2015 report by Michigan State University professor David Arsen. The report blamed Michigan school districts’ shrinking fund balances on three factors: a Schools of Choice policy that empowers students to enroll in different districts; a funding formula that doesn’t provide enough money to compensate districts with declining enrollment; and insufficient reimbursements for special education services.

But the report omits from its calculations a significant portion of the money the district receives for special education, incorrectly claiming Michigan education funding has declined. Further, it is true that more parents exercise choice across school district lines and the state’s enrollment formula has remained static. But the number of districts in financial distress has actually dropped significantly, suggesting that it is possible to adjust to changing student preferences.

Why hasn’t Highland Park been able to respond? Guyette doesn’t provide any clear answers.

While downplaying the theft conviction of former school board member Robert Davis, the author also omitted altogether that the old district guard collected and spent more than $18,000 per pupil in 2011-12, its last year in charge. The charter-managed district today receives and spends less than $11,000 per student.

Publicly reported academic achievement data highlights ongoing challenges for the privately managed district. The Highland Park Public School Academy’s sole remaining school registered an F on the Mackinac Center’s latest Context and Performance Report Card, and its scores on the new M-STEP test represent a mixed bag in comparison with neighboring peers.

According to data shared by the Leona Group, Highland Park students register an average mark on Michigan’s new measure of year-to-year academic growth, and the school maintained “on target” accountability status from the state in 2014-15. The management company also reports that internal tests this past year show slightly more progress in reading and substantially more progress in math.

Highland Park still has a long way to go to put significant numbers of students on track to success. Plenty of unanswered questions about falling enrollment remain. There are no easy solutions, but it isn’t true that students are worse off in the new district than the old.

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