Leaders of the charter school system in Highland Park are more confident as they wrap up this school year.
Highland Park's charter system was created by an emergency manager in 2012 to save money. But soon the charter district ran into its own money problems, and began running a deficit.
This time last year, the district announced it couldn’t afford to keep its high school open any more. Despite the uncertainty that caused, school leader Carmen Willingham says most K-8 grade students stayed.
“I believe that now people believe we’re going to be here. You know where before you’re thinking like, ‘Oh my goodness the high school’s closing, what’s coming next?” Willingham said.
According to state data, most of the students who live in Highland Park already attend other schools. Enrollment has fallen from nearly 1,000 students in 2011-12, to just over 500 last school year. After the loss of the high school, this year Willingham says there are about 340 K-8 students enrolled.
She expects roughly the same will return in the fall.
“I’m never comfortable because we can always do better and we always want to stay a step ahead as far as our school, but it makes me feel a little more relaxed and proud,” Willingham said.
The original Highland Park school district is expected to pay down its debt over the next 27 years.
She says the new charter district continues to get community support, citing about 70 businesses and non-profit organizations that have helped where they can; covering the costs to take a trip to Cedar Point, school uniforms, and holiday parties.
“We want to make sure that we’re exposing our children to as many things as we can that will enhance their lives that they may not get somewhere else at no cost or low cost to them. Luckily we’ve had people who are good to our school and they seek me out,” she said.
They’ve added programs this year, like scouting, sewing and yoga. Next year they’ll add tennis, golf and gardening.
Willingham says academic achievement is improving. State standardized tests have changed in recent years, so independent data confirming that is difficult to interpret.