Farmington school officials concerned about Harrison ‘soft close’

Farmington Public Schools officials on Tuesday peppered Superintendent George Heitsch with questions about a draft school closure plan, making clear their concerns about a proposed “soft close” of Harrison High School.

Heitsch said he proposed the phased closure – which board member David Turner called “death by a thousand cuts” – because capital bond renovations will pull classrooms offline and temporarily reduce capacity at Farmington and North Farmington High Schools over the next few years. In addition, he said, “we felt we were being gracious to families.”

The draft proposal includes the following actions:

  • Closing Harrison at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. This year’s eighth graders would be enrolled at Farmington High or North Farmington High this fall. Farmington Central High, the district’s alternative school, could be moved to Harrison beginning in 2017-2018. Harrison could also become the home of the district’s technology operations center and some City of Farmington Hills community programs.
  • Moving the International Baccalaureate program from Harrison to Farmington High School in 2018-2019.
  • Closing O.E. Dunckel as a middle school and moving Highmeadow Common Campus’ STEAM program to that school beginning in the fall of 2017. The STEAM program would be open to grades K-8. The district’s early childhood education program would be moved from Alameda and Farmington Community School to Highmeadow.

A “soft close” at Harrison leaves the school with just one grade level by 2018-2019, which Director of Instructional Services Jon Manier said would create scheduling challenges. Several board members expressed concern about how the district will continue to provide students with a good educational experience.

Board vice president Sheilah Clay said she didn’t want a “subpar” education at Harrison, which Heitsch assured her would not happen. Manier said offering classes at Harrison would require spending more. Board president Howard Wallach was equally troubled by the idea of moving seniors to a wing at Farmington High School.

“It allows for their community to maintain some cohesiveness, but it still doesn’t feel right to me,” he said.

Clay asked what would happen with extracurricular programs as the number of Harrison students declines. Heitsch said several sports have combined programs from across the district. And some marching band parents have told him that a larger, united program would be easier to run. Manier added that other programs – such as career-oriented clubs and musicals – could also be combined.

“We’ll have to take those on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

In his introduction, Heitsch noted the draft plan was driven by declining enrollment, from more than 12,000 students to under 10,000 in the next few years, and the resulting loss of dollars. Going from three high schools to two will reduce extracurricular opportunities, he said, “but within the school day you will expand opportunities.”

While officials had expected to vote on school of choice options, they took that item off the agenda after Heitsch pointed out some of those decisions will be affected by building closures.

Residents have three opportunities to provide feedback before officials vote on the draft closure plan on March 15:

  • March 3, 7 p.m., at the Maxfield Education Center, 32789 W. 10 Mile Rd., Farmington
  • March 5, 10 a.m., at the Dunckel Middle School cafeteria, 32800 W. 12 Mile Rd., Farmington Hills
  • March 7, 7 p.m., at the Maxfield Education Center (scheduled as a Community Coffee)

In addition, board members asked for an opportunity to meet with Harrison students, which Heitsch said he would try to arrange.

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