Five years after its high school closed, the Highland Park district is seeking charter operators to build anew

Nearly two years after the Highland Park school district was released from emergency management, the school board is moving forward with ambitious plans to bring high school students back to the city.

The district announced this week that the school board had approved requesting proposals to build and operate a new high school and an adult education center. But the district wouldn’t run either school. Instead, it would seek a charter operator. 

The proposed venture seems unusual, considering it was just five years ago that the city’s only high school was shut down because of declining enrollment. At the time, the school only enrolled 160 students. The district later demolished the building that housed them on Woodward Avenue.

Currently, the district has an agreement with the Detroit Public Schools Community District to educate high school students in the city. Students also can attend neighboring school districts as well as charter schools. Some attend school as far as 7 miles away, according to the request.

Highland Park is a small enclave within the city of Detroit and its school district has struggled with many of the same problems as the Detroit school district. From 2012 to 2018, a series of state-appointed emergency managers ran the Highland Park district. The state brought them in to deal with massive debt that accumulated partly because of swiftly declining enrollment. 

The city currently has only two schools — a K-8 school operated by the district, and a charter school.

Officials in the district are optimistic that revitalization happening in and around the city will translate into more students. They say enrollment is already increasing for students in grades K-8. But there are big questions, such as whether the district will be able to attract students and how the new school would be financed. 

According to the request for proposals, the district would commit a portion of $1 million it has in revenue from a millage for the projects. But companies seeking to build and operate the high school and adult education center would need to demonstrate they have the cash to pull off the project. It’s unclear whether any charter school companies would have the money, or interest, in taking on such a project.

The construction plan is part of what officials described as “an aggressive plan to rebuild the district.”

“We think there’s a market for quality education that’s accessible in Highland Park,” Kevin Smith, the district’s director of operations, said in an interview Thursday.

District officials said they expect 500 students to enroll when the school opens, which would be in 2021. The school could be built on 1.2 acres the district owns at 105 Pilgrim St., the site of the former Henry Ford Middle/High School.

District officials envision the new high school offering a college preparatory program with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. The adult education center would be geared toward adults looking to complete their high school education, or adults looking for job training.

Smith said the district hopes the new high school will attract students graduating from city schools, as well as students from outside the city, 

The city is ideally located along the Woodward Corridor, said Don Weatherspoon, who was the district’s emergency manager in 2015 when Highland Park High School was closed. Just months after that, Weatherspoon began talks with lawmakers and community college officials to create a kindergarten-through-college system. 

Those plans never materialized. Weatherspoon noted the new plan faces some barriers. High schools, for instance, are far more expensive to operate than elementary and middle schools. And the district will need to figure out how it can stand out in a sea of choices for high school students.

“The kids aren’t going to come back just because you have a new building,” Weatherspoon said. “There has to be something new.”