Emotional Farmington Schools officials vote to close Harrison High

With some trustees in tears, Farmington Public Schools officials voted Tuesday to close Harrison High School, effective for the 2019-2020 school year.

The “soft close” decision means the school on 12 Mile east of Orchard Lake Road will continue to accept students as usual, and in the fall of 2019, all will be transferred to other schools. It came only after heated public comments and emotional statements from board members.

Some speakers asked officials to postpone their decision to collect more information, to actively recruit more students and make the district more competitive. Enrollment has declined over the past decade, Supt. George Heitsch said, with the steepest drop over the past six or seven years. Built to accommodate more than 12,000 students, the district now houses barely 10,000. And the decline is expected to continue, Heitsch said. This year’s graduating class has about 1,000 students, while grade level classes are at 650-700.

Debbie Kuna, a Farmington Schools teacher who also has children in the district, urged forming a task force to find out what the community really wants and even suggested raising funds to keep all three high schools open.

“I know that anything is possible,” she said. “Isn’t that what we teach our children?”

Parent Lesa Ferencz, a Farmington High graduate who is the parent of a Harrison freshman, said her daughter will likely have attended seven schools before she graduates. However, she said, “the buildings are not what’s important to us, the programming is what’s important to us.” She also asked for more information about what happens after the closure decision, when it comes to programming, transportation, sports, and other logistics.

Board members Terri Weems, Jessica Cummings, and Sheilah Clay shed tears as they shared their reasons for supporting the closure; all three have Harrison ties. Weems said she has three daughters “who I dreamed of going to Harrison High School.” After reviewing all the research, she said, “we cannot practically support three high schools, not if we want Farmington to offer the programming that our students need.”

While her children are Harrison graduates, Clay said she still has school memorabilia around her home. “I have spent 10 years of my life tied to Harrison High School…It’s a part of the fiber of my family.”

Clay also noted that the current recommendation was influenced by community feedback and a Monday meeting with Harrison students. She urged parents to model resiliency. “The advocacy is wonderful. But after tonight, they have to see something else from you…If you don’t believe they’re going to be okay, they’re going to take their lead from you.”

Trustee David Turner cast the lone vote opposing the closure. He said he was “angry that we’re here. I think we probably could have avoided this at some point.”

“Any plan that we approve that has regression must have a plan to build and grow,” he said. “I will be particularly watchful around what happens next, so that we don’t sit here again, doing this.”

For board member Murray Kahn, the evening held no small amount of irony; he first ran for school board over the 2010 closure of Eagle Elementary School. This time around, Kahn said, he saw an open and transparent process.

“We heard you and truly took your input to heart,” he said. “I think I changed my mind three times tonight up here. I know Harrison students will succeed wherever they are, because their parents are so supportive.”

Speaking after the decision, Harrison principal Jim Anderson told officials that the school community would “need some time to grieve.” However, he said, administrators, teachers, and students will work to make the next three years the best they can possibly be.

“We have an honor to close out a fantastic legacy at Harrison High School, and we can do that with a period or an exclamation point,” he said. “Tomorrow we will talk to the students, and we will make this great.”

K-8 STEAM academy gets green light

School board members also voted 4-3 to move Highmeadow Common Campus’ STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Math) program to Dunckel Middle School, creating a K-8 school of choice that will open in 2017-2018. Highmeadow will continue to operate as a K-5 school for the 2016-2017 school year.

Alameda and Farmington Community School buildings will close, with all early childhood programs moved to the Highmeadow building, also beginning with the 2017-2018 school year.

In addition, officials opened 20 kindergarten and 1st grade seats and 50 seats in the district’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, starting with ninth grade, to Section 105 School of Choice for students within the Oakland Schools Intermediate School District.