Harrison High School will officially close June 14.

Harrison High School will officially close June 14.

Photo by Deb Jacques


FPS attempts to ease residents’ minds amid Harrison High closure

‘They’re building the plane after it has taken off’

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published May 15, 2019

 Harrison High School students sit together in a hallway working on their classwork as a team a month before the official closing of the school.

Harrison High School students sit together in a hallway working on their classwork as a team a month before the official closing of the school.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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FARMINGTON/FARMINGTON HILLS — Parents and staff of Farmington Public Schools met May 6 to discuss the upcoming closing of Harrison High School as the school year comes to an end.

The forum was meant to provide a space for parents to have their questions answered and voice their concerns about the upcoming transition from three high schools in the district to two.

Several concerns were brought to the table, including the athletic programs, the International Baccalaureate program, class and school population sizes, transportation, boundary lines, creating an immersive culture for the Harrison students transitioning to North Farmington High School and Farmington High School, and preserving the legacy of Harrison High School.

While these were all areas of issue that Superintendent George Heitsch and other officials knew about, Heitsch said the differing weight that parents placed on each issue was something he was unaware of.

“We have a list of the things we need to pay attention to, and the same things on our list were on the parents’ list, but I think they have them ordered differently,” said Heitsch. “There was an urgency about specific programs and information regarding them that we felt like were under control, but we hadn’t communicated those things effectively.”

Farmington Hills parent Bridget Espinosa said she believes the school system hasn’t communicated much of anything at all. She said administrators have taken a “wait-and-see” approach to many of the unresolved issues stemming from this transition.

“I don’t think they’re saying anything. That’s part of the problem,” she said. “There are so many things that are so black and white that could be addressed that haven’t been. … They’re building the plane after it has taken off.”

District officials said they have taken many approaches to answer the questions and concerns coming in, including creating a FAQ section on the district’s website, holding public forums, and answering questions sent directly from parents through email or via in-person communication. Heitsch said the district and its administrators have been doing a better job of keeping communication lines open, actively listening and trying to be transparent, but he said he understands why some parents and families still have concerns.

“If you don’t believe it’s been put in place and you haven’t experienced that it’s in place, then it doesn’t exist, and I think we have a lot of families in that position,” Heitsch said. “It’s hard to trust through transitions.”

While Espinosa doesn’t disagree with the closing of the school, for fiscal reasons, her main concern centers around staff morale. As a former educator in Novi Public Schools, she said she is concerned that the teachers haven’t been able to add their voices to the conversation as much as they need to, something she believes can be detrimental to this whole transition.

“My only real concern is staff morale,” she said. “If the staff is in a good place, they’re going to be the most effective teachers they can be, and students’ learning will be the best it can be, but when the staff feels demoralized — they don’t feel valued or heard — they will not be able to do the best job they can do.”

Heitsch said the transition to a new school or the potential displacement of staff is stressful. He said the district intends to let all teachers and staff know where they will be placed — either at Farmington High or North Farmington High — or displaced on May 15. Harrison High School teachers are not the only staff members in jeopardy of losing their jobs, either. The district plans to look at all staff across all three high schools and make the best decision based on the needs of the students, district officials said.

Heitsch declined to comment on the specific number of staff reductions the district would see, though he said “there will definitely be a reduction of staff.” He said he hopes that most, if not all, can be covered through staff members retiring or choosing to resign on their own, though he’s aware it may not work out that way.

Farmington Hills parent Wendy Scrimger is concerned about whether district administrators will stay true to the promises they’ve made throughout the last two years as they’ve been working through this transition. Additionally, with Heitsch stepping down as superintendent this summer, she’s worried that issues and promises may fall through the cracks.

“How do you know the promises will be kept? Because he won’t be there,” she said. “We certainly hope the board is hearing our concerns and making the changes happen, because when people move on, things do get lost.”

Administrative staff at the May 6 forum said the district can use its budget for whatever is necessary to make the transition as smooth as possible for all parties involved.

Whether that means paying more to fill the currently open position of IB coordinator with the most effective candidate, hiring a second coordinator to work specifically with Advanced Placement courses or finding the money to fund two junior varsity athletic teams for a specific sport, Heitsch said the district has the finances to make things work.

“I don’t know where the money will come from within the general fund budget, but we’ll make it happen,” he said. “Through a budget amendment process, we’ll move money from pot A to pot B to make sure we cover those expenses.

“We don’t want to deny anybody an opportunity that wants it,” he added.

Heitsch said that at the end of the day, there will still potentially be students, parents, teachers and staff who are frustrated by the decision to close Harrison and with the subsequent transition. He said he won’t be able to ease all of their minds. However, he said that because this decision and transition have spanned the last four years, it’s allowed time for residents of the community to come to grips with the entire situation.

“It’s provided us enough time for grieving and really allowed the community to come to grips with what our current state is around population, as well as the economics around public education. It’s also allowed us to be a little more thoughtful about the legacy of Harrison,” he said. “People are still going to be angry and hurt. It’s a big loss, but we’ve had time to process and at least work through some of those kinks.

“At the end, there will still be two great high schools, and this will continue to be a great school system whether it has three high schools or two,” he added.

For more information on the Harrison High School closing and the district’s transition from three high school to two, visit www.farmington.k12.mi.us/fps and search “FAQ Harrison high school closure.”

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