There is no question that Highland Park was a struggling district. Financial mismanagement, alleged theft and a failure to maintain facilities all contributed to a school environment that was not conducive to learning. And neighborhood parents voted with their feet, leaving the district in droves and exacerbating the district’s fiscal problems. Fortunately, all of these issues are being addressed by the district’s conversion to a system of charter schools.
While some might hope to see a total recovery after a single year of operation, the difficult reality is that Highland Park schools have a long way to go. Not only are HPRA officials trying to address the large problems that led to the district’s financial collapse, they have also had to grapple with litigation and protests.
Charter conversion, as seen in Highland Park, does offer some advantages over other efforts to reform struggling schools. Students are able to continue to attend their neighborhood schools and the charter company undertakes the financial risk of continued enrollment decline and the upfront costs of fixing up the schools. Moreover, though HPRA still faces challenges in reinventing Highland Park schools, students are posting academic gains as measured by standardized tests. In some cases, the gains are well above what is typical for Michigan students.
HRPA has had a promising first year. Officials and teachers have remained resilient, despite challenges. As the charter district continues operation, policy makers should watch carefully. If charter conversion works in Highland Park, it could be a promising solution for other failing districts.