Category Archives: Schools

Harrison High students focus on ocean ecology in ‘Little Mermaid’

Harrison High School’s spring musical isn’t just a performance of the Disney movie, “The Little Mermaid.”

As students bring the beloved Hans Christiansen Andersen fairy tale to life March 16-19, they have also learned valuable information about ocean ecology through a partnership with the Ocean Conservancy. Their goal: to draw attention to the devastating impact of plastic shopping bags and water bottles, which choke coastal areas and waterways.

Assistant director Sue Cobb said the theater program received a $1,500 grant from the Farmington/Farmington Hills Education Foundation to make the connection. The sale of reusable shopping bags will raise funds split between the Ocean Conservancy and the theater program.

“Through this grant, we directors are adding another layer in the musical process with the students’ participation in ocean ecology through the Ocean Conservancy and its message that impacts us all … including the characters the cast will be portraying ‘Under the Sea’,” she said.

While some students hadn’t seen the movie, 17-year-old junior Chania Malcum said it was a childhood favorite, and she loves “channeling” the character of Ursula. The evil sea witch makes a pact with the mermaid Ariel (played by Bridget Smith) who dreams of living in the world above the sea and is willing to sacrifice her most prized possession – the beautiful singing voice she inherited from her late mother – so she can be with the sea-loving Prince Eric (played by Zack Heger) whose life she saves during a storm.

“I always loved Ursula,” said Malcum, who has been acting since elementary school. “She was powerful. She was so big, so out there, it was amazing to me.”

Like Malcum, castmate Julia Luterman, also a 17-year-old junior, works on stage and behind the scenes. She’s playing Arista, one of Ariel’s older sisters, but her work as a makeup artist starts three or four hours before the curtain goes up.

“We’re creating scales, gluing eyebrows … for the fish, we’re giving them a whole new skin,” she said.

Luterman also did makeup for last fall’s “10 Ways to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse,” and has performed in “The Addams Family” and “Xanadu,” among other Harrison productions.

“It’s something new and fun every year,” she said, “which is part of the rush.”

Malcum said students involved in this production have worked together since their freshman year.

“Everyone’s so kind to each other and supportive,” she said. “It’s one big family.”

The directing team of Dean Cobb, Sue Cobb, Lucy Koviak and Kathy Seremet is joined by Rachael Rose, co-vocals, and Travis Cook, orchestra. In all, 100 students are participating as cast, crew and pit members – about one-tenth of the school’s population, Sue Cobb said.

If you go…

You can see this family-friendly production of “The Little Mermaid” March 16 and 17 at 7 p.m., March 18 at 6 p.m. and March 19 at 2 p.m. Kids can have their photos taken with the characters after each performance, and those 12 and under will be eligible for a drawing held at intermission. Costumed kids get a second chance at the drawing.

Student and senior adult tickets are $12, and adult tickets are $15. Tickets are available each day school is in session during lunches (11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.) through March 17 or by calling the box office, 248-888-6274. All tickets are reserved. Those over 60 can get a free ticket with a Senior Adult Card from School and Community Relations. For information, call 248-489-3349.


North Farmington takes ‘Shrek’ from big screen to stage

A troupe of North Farmington High actors who grew up watching the movie “Shrek” will bring those childhood memories to life later this month in a production of “Shrek the Musical”.

On stage March 23-25 at the Cobb Center for the Performing Arts, the tale of an ogre, his four-legged sidekick, Donkey, and beloved Princess Fiona reflects a decision to produce light, fun shows this season.

“This year was all about trying to do fun things on stage,” said Sean McGuckin, who directs the show. “It’s fun for the kids to have the opportunity to be campy and a little goofy.”

Matthew Swarthout, left, and Daniel Isabella, right, play Donkey and Shrek, respectively.
Jordan Gagnon plays Princess Fiona.

Daniel Isabella, who plays the title role, said the musical is similar to the movie “with a little extra Broadway pizazz.” He’s making his own costume, shopping for extra-large t-shirts and other clothing at local Salvation Army stores and customizing a fat suit to get just the right build. Inserts in his shoes will make him taller, and prosthetics and make-up will complete the picture.

As the sidekick “Donkey,” Swarthout will also have elaborate makeup. He said his character is very flamboyant, so he plays Donkey larger than life.

“I’ve never played a character that is so active,” he said. “He moves quickly from one end of the stage to the other.”

Coincidentally, Jordan Gagnon, who plays Princess Fiona, was featured in the Sky’s the Limit Productions version of the show in her freshman year. Cast as Donkey then, she said doing the North Farmington show is like “coming full circle.”

While Fiona has a more princess-like demeanor in the movie, she is “a lot more quirky and genuinely bizarre” on stage.

“Over the past three years, we’ve done some serious shows,” Gagnon said. “This one is very silly and much more kid-friendly. I’m really excited.”

“Shrek the Musical” isn’t only about having fun, Swarthout said. One song, “Freak Flag”, is all about “accepting everyone the way they are.”

“And even a big, ugly ogre can be the hero of his own story,” Isabella added.

Performances of “Shrek the Musical” are Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 24, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, March 25, at 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. All seats are reserved. Adults are $15. Students and seniors 60 and older are $12.

New this year, tickets are available online by visiting and clicking “Buy Tickets” or following the link in the Upcoming Events section at — where you’ll also find show publicity and early rehearsal photos. Tickets will also be available at the door, with the box office opening at least an hour before the shows.

North Farmington High is located at 32900 W. 13 Mile Rd. in Farmington Hills.

Farmington school officials approve one-year extension for Heitsch

Farmington Public Schools Superintendent Dr. George Heitsch will serve the district at least one more year after officials on Tuesday approved an unusual contract extension.

Heitsch said the one-year extension, which includes another one-year option, was a “mutual decision.”

“I think it’s important for us to finish the work we started,” he said, adding that at the end of the year, officials will decide whether “I’ve got enough juice left,” or it’s time to look for a new leader.

Hired in May of 2014, Heitsch formerly served as superintendent of Avondale School District. Among other things, his tenure has included a successful $131.5 million bond campaign, a grade level reconfiguration, challenging union contract negotiations, and last year’s contentious decision to close Harrison High School and Dunckel Middle School.

Heitsch said the last two and half years “feel like dog years with what we’ve been through.”

The unusual contract extension comes before Heitsch’s evaluation, due to a change in state law. The contract terms require the renewal, but the state established a new evaluation tool, and board members won’t begin required training until March 14.

Board member Jim Stark stressed the short extension is “in no way…based on a reflection of the job Dr. Heitsch has done. He’s done a tremendous job.”

Farmington school board approves 3-year contract with teachers

Farmington Public Schools officials on Tuesday unanimously approved a 3-year contract with the Farmington Education Association (FEA) that adds no additional dollars to the current pay scale but helps bridge the gap between lower and higher paid teachers.

Kathy Smith, Executive Director of Human Resources, said the district and FEA have worked on the new contract for more than a year.

Smith shared highlights from the new contract, which continues through the end of the 2018-2019 school year:

  • Extends the pay scale, which slows the growth of salary costs by 30 percent each year
  • Supports a balanced budget and maintains the school board’s target of a 10 percent fund balance
  • This year and next year, incremental increases for lower paid teachers
  • Continues an insurance advisory committee that will recommend changes to control health care costs
  • Adds merit pay components that link compensation with performance evaluations

In addition, the district will establish a joint committee focused on recruitment and retention of students, Smith said.

“I’m pleased that we’ve reached a tentative agreement,” board member Terri Weems said. While she has concerns about the contract’s financial implications, she said, “I recognize, and everyone at this table recognizes, the importance of valuing our teachers.”

Board member Jim Stark appreciated the emphasis on recruiting and retaining students. “That’s direct money. If we keep kids in the district, that’s money we don’t have to beg for or apply for… it just comes to us through enrollment.”

“What I see for this district moving forward is exciting,” board president Jessica Cummings said.

School officials stand pat on STEAM school sibling preference

Farmington school board members on Tuesday left sibling preference in place for the district’s new STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) school, which still doesn’t have a name.

Located in the former Dunckel Middle School building on 12 Mile Road, the STEAM school expands the current Highmeadow Common Campus program from grades K-5 to K-8. Highmeadow is the district’s only school of choice, populated through an annual lottery. Siblings are given preference at that school, and they will be at the new building, for now.

After vocal opposition from parents, board members last month voted down a School of Choice Options committee recommendation.

“We think we learned our lesson in December,” Superintendent Dr. George Heitsch said Tuesday. “We’re giving you all three options, and we’ll leave it to you.”

The three options included sibling preference only if spots remained after all other interested students had been placed (voted down in December), eliminating sibling preference with the class of 2030, and Highmeadow’s current process, which places siblings first and reduces the number of open slots.

Board member David Turner asked Highmeadow principal Dr. Dyanne Sanders whether the school has had any trouble placing siblings. While there are sometimes issues – particularly in upper grades – she said, “somehow before the school year starts, we’ve been able to work it out.”

If the current practice is working, board member Jim Stark wondered, why did the committee recommend a different option? Aaron Johnson, Assistant Superintendent of K-12 Instructional Services, said some committee members wanted to open the STEAM school opportunity to more students across the district.

“I do see a value in making sure that siblings can be with their family,” board member Terry Johnson said. “However, I am concerned that it’s not fair to the others. My biggest concern is I don’t want anyone to have an advantage one way or another just because they have multiple children.”

Sanders said parents may choose to not enroll their children in the STEAM school without a guarantee that siblings would also attend.

Board president Jessica Cummings said two options would leave families not knowing whether all of their children would attend the same school.

“Our focus has been as a district to support our neighborhood schools as places where families can send their children,” she said. “Families feel like it’s home. I cannot conclude that there’s a perfect option.”

She added that by leaving the lottery as it is, officials could later revisit the issue.

Officials voted on the motions in order; option 2 carried with board members Johnson, Turner, and Angie Smith opposing, and Cummings, Stark, Terri Weems, and Mark Przeslawski in favor.

School teams battle for a good cause tonight

Harrison High School will host the 12th Annual Battle of the Middles Charity Basketball Game, which tips off at 6:30 p.m. on December 9.

Staffs of Warner Middle School and District Administration will take the court against the staffs of Power Middle School and East Middle School to raise funds for Farmington Area Goodfellows. Cash proceeds and donations of toys and canned goods will go directly to Farmington area families in need.

Last year’s game raised more than $9,346 and helped more than 200 Farmington area families. Over the past decade, the Battle of the Middles has helped raise more than $57,577 and collected countless canned goods and toys for the two charities. This year’s goal is $10,000.

The Farmington Area Goodfellows collects and delivers food and toys to ensure that no child or senior in Farmington or Farmington Hills goes without a Christmas. Neighborhood House, supported by the Goodfellows, operates year-round to help local families and individuals in need.

Doors open at 5:45 p.m. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students, or $1 with two or more canned goods and free with a new unwrapped toy.

Farmington school board talks STEAM school name, lottery

When an opportunity to lead Farmington Public Schools’ only school of choice opened up 11 years ago, Dr. Dyanne Sanders jumped at the chance.

Now Highmeadow Common Campus’ long-time principal sees expanding and moving the STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Mathematics) school as another opportunity to innovate.

“This is a chance for us to do something different…something right for the new type of learner we have,” she told Board of Education members during a Tuesday study session.

Officials voted earlier this year to close Dunckel and repurpose it as a K-8 STEAM school. Sanders said parents in surveys, at community forums, and in committee discussions expressed an interest in the program as an alternative. Tech-related businesses, including Hitatchi and Bosch in Farmington Hills, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, have expressed interest in forming partnerships, she added.

STEAM is a philosophy, rather than a program or curriculum, Sanders said. Through a project-based approach, students learn to creatively solve problems and develop the kinds of skills that will become even more valuable as they enter the job market.

Officials also learned about options for enrollment in the new school. Students currently enter Highmeadow through a lottery process, with siblings of enrolled students getting preference before the lottery is held in January. A committee charged with looking at the K-8 process recommended that siblings of the class of 2030 and beyond apply for STEAM through the lottery. Those not chosen would receive priority placement only after interested students from all buildings have been placed.

Other alternatives discussed included sticking with the current system, and eliminating sibling preference after the class of 2030.

Sanders also revealed the recommended name for the new school: The Center for STEAM Studies.

Recommendations were presented as an information item; board members will finalize the building name and lottery process at a future meeting.

FPS board makes Power assistant principal post permanent

Paula Sanders-Avent
Paula Sanders-Avent

On Tuesday, Farmington Public Schools Board of Education made Paula Sanders-Avant’s job as interim assistant principal at Power Middle School permanent.

Sanders-Avant began her career in Farmington Public Schools when she joined Farmington High School as a guidance counselor in 2007. She served in that role until she was selected in August 2016 to serve at Power.

Previously an elementary teacher and high school counselor in other school districts in Michigan and Illinois, Sanders-Avant earned her B.A. in Elementary Education from Michigan State University and her M.S. in Human Services and Counseling from DePaul University.

“I am so thrilled to have the opportunity to work at Power Middle School as assistant principal,” she said. “I look forward to serving our students, parents, staff and the Farmington community in my new role. I really appreciate the support from my family, friends and FPS colleagues.”

“From the moment that Paula stepped into our school as an interim assistant principal, I have been impressed by her grace under pressure, her outstanding communication with our entire Power community and her dedication to Power Middle School,” said Power Middle School Principal Allyson Robinson. “I am beyond thrilled that I get to continue working with her in this capacity and I know that she will be an outstanding asset in every sense of the word.”

Press release

Combined school bands present multicultural holiday concert

The combined bands of Farmington High, Power and East Middle Schools will present their 2016 “Music for the Holidays” concert at 7 p.m. on December 15, in the Farmington High School auditorium.

The multicultural celebration will include music composed and/or arranged by Bernotas, Long, Silvistri, Swearingen, and others. Musical pieces will include “The Polar Express,” “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “A Hanukkah Festival ,” “Deck the Halls,” “Sleighride,” and more.

Admission is free, but donations of canned food and cash will be accepted for Gleaners Food Bank and Farmington Public Schools music programs.

“We are pleased with the enthusiasm that the students have put into preparing for this holiday show. It will be a great night to get you in the holiday mood,” said Farmington High Director of Bands Michael Steele.

“The combined bands work very well together because we have great instrumental talent in Farmington schools and excellent teachers at all levels,” he added. “Mr. Drake’s and Mr. Wilson’s students were well prepared, and they have gelled quickly with our students for this concert, and it will show in the music.”

This will be the final musical performance in the Farmington High auditorium before it is closed for renovation in January 2017. Alumni and friends of Farmington High School are encouraged to attend.

Press release

Harrison Men’s Leadership Academy collects for kids in need

The Young Men’s Leadership Academy at Harrison High School will be collecting, wrapping, and giving giftts December 10 to kids in need in Farmington Hills.

Hawks Giving Back to Kids will be held from 10 a.m. until noon in the Auditorium Lobby, on the school’s east side. Hot chocolate and cookies will be served, and face-painting will be provided by Harrison art students.

Farmington Hills residents are invited to sign up for this event here:

The group is accepting:

  • Cash or gift card donations
  • Unwrapped Gift/toy donation (for boys and girls ages 1-5, 5-10- 10-15 and 15-18
  • Clothing, blankets, school items

Donations can be made in the donation box located in front of the main office at 29995 W. 12 Mile Rd.

Young Men’s Leadership Academy is a boys-only club designed to help young men who may be struggling socially or academically. The goal is for members to become future leaders, better students, and great young men.

YMLA is sponsored by Social Studies Instructor Dominic Carino and Assistant Principal Angela Leach. Hawks Giving Back to Kids is the brainchild of YMLA mentors/leaders Carl Hanpeter, Jimmy O’Connor, Jad Mourad, Lindon Ivezic and Joe Madrid. Joe’s mother, Rayna Madero, coordinated similar efforts at Joe’s previous school. She is the Social Media consultant and parent coordinator in the effort.

To learn more, contact Leach at 248-426-2858 or write to