Charter School Group Revitalizes Michigan District

Published December 13, 2013

HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. — No parents choose to send their child to a school where mice scamper through classrooms, garbage fills the hallways, and the school pool and bathroom tissue is rationed and handed out only from the main office.

Yet for years that’s what students in the former Highland Park School District were forced to endure every day. Parents and teachers complained, but nothing happened. It wasn’t for lack of money. The public school district spent nearly $20,000 per student—the highest in the state.

Things got so bad the state appointed an emergency manager, and eventually the school district was turned over to The Leona Group, a charter management company. Teachers unions complained. So did some parents and community activists, protesting because the status quo was being disrupted.

Gloria Liveoak was one of those who complained. She actively lobbied against the Leona Group, and like many former Detroit Public Schools employees, thought charter schools were bad for students and the community at large.

Not anymore. Now she’s not only working in a charter, she’s promoting it as a good choice for parents. She’s now a full-time parent liaison at Highland Park Renaissance Academy, and based on the cheers she got when a video of her played at a press conference in November, she’s a favorite among teachers and parents.

From Troubled to Hopeful
You don’t have to spend much time in the hallways or classrooms of the Renaissance Academy to see its dedication and commitment to education is real and unencumbered by bureaucracy, administrative obstacles, or obstructionists.

Whether it’s Ruffin Green, the school’s security guard, greeting you with a handshake as you walk into the building, Superintendent Pamela Williams talking to students in the halls, or Principal Carmen Willingham talking about renovations to the third floor of the building, it’s clear the school has a plan, a mission, and a spirit to get things done.

“This school shows you what can become of some of our most troubled schools,” said Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who has chronicled the district’s transformation for the past year.

To get a better sense of how bad it was and what $1 million in cleanup looks like, listen to the teachers, some of whom took significant pay cuts to stay, and to the parents who appreciate the efforts of those educators.

“Even after my kids graduate, I’ll still come back and help this school,” said Davonda Huff, a parent-volunteer whose second-grade daughter and fifth-grade son both now have 4.0 GPAs. “I love this place and the Leona Group.”

Things aren’t perfect, and there still is a long way to go. But students and parents have hope for the future thanks to the choice they were given by a company willing to step in and improve a situation that had deteriorated for far too long.

Manny Lopez ([email protected]) is managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Reprinted from MCC with permission. Image by WoodleyWonderworks.