New Policy Brief and Documentary Highlight Changes in Highland Park Schools

District was converted to a charter system in 2012; test scores show improvement

For Immediate Release
Monday, Dec. 16, 2013
Ted O'Neil
Media Relations Manager

MIDLAND — A for-profit management company has invested $1 million in the Highland Park schools and student test scores are showing signs of improvement since the district was converted to a system of charter public schools in 2012, according to a new policy brief authored by Audrey Spalding, director of education policy.

“Some may hope to see a total transformation in Highland Park after just one year, but that would be unrealistic,” Spalding said. “The district had years of financial mismanagement and a failure to properly maintain facilities that created an environment that was not conducive to learning. But it is showing signs of improvement now.”

The policy brief and an accompanying documentary are the result of more than a year’s worth of visits to Highland Park by Spalding that included interviews with parents, students, teachers and administrators, as well as a look at state data of the district’s previous funding and academic performance.

A timeline included as an appendix shows that the district was placed under an emergency manager in March of 2012. It was converted to a charter system in June of 2012 and a contract with The Leona Group to run the new district was signed in July 2012.

“Highland Park had faced declining enrollment and failing test scores for years, but spending did not reflect it,” Spalding said. “As the documentary shows, the schools were filthy; rodents were routinely seen in the high school and the swimming pools at both elementary schools were filled with trash and unused school equipment.”

In the 2011-2012 school year, just 5 percent of eighth graders in the district scored proficient or better in mathematics on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. The previous year, no eighth graders reached that plateau. In both 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, zero students scored proficient or better in mathematics on the Michigan Merit Exam, which is given to high school juniors. Only 3 percent did so the following year.

“There are signs of improvement since the conversion,” Spalding said. “In the fall of 2012, eighth graders scored in line with the bottom 25 percent of their peers statewide on the MEAP test. By the spring of 2013, they were close to the 50th percentile.”

Spalding said the results show that charter conversion offers advantages that other efforts to reform struggling schools lack.

“Students can continue to attend their neighborhood school and a charter management company undertakes the financial risk of any enrollment decline as well as the upfront costs of repairing the buildings,” she said. “Policymakers should keep an eye on what is happening in Highland Park, as it could be a promising solution for other failing districts.”

The full policy brief is available at

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. The largest state-based free-market think tank in the country celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.


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