Inside one Michigan city’s fight to save its schools

Why We Wrote This

How can a struggling school district be turned around? Officials in one Michigan city are emphasizing community engagement – an approach that could become a template for other troubled districts.

Paul Sancya/AP/File
A Michigan State Police trooper stands outside Benton Harbor High School as school lets out for the summer, June 3, 2004. The year before, this Lake Michigan city experienced two nights of rioting sparked by the death of a black motorcyclist during a high-speed police chase. Those 2003 events are among the setbacks that the community has endured, but officials are now fighting to turn around the school district.

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Benton Harbor has sustained a series of setbacks. The Michigan city’s population dwindled from 19,136 in 1960 to about 9,800 in 2018. Riots erupted in 2003, and it came under state emergency financial management in 2010.

But last year, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a plan to close the city’s two high schools, it was one loss too many for community leaders. They quickly drew a line in the Lake Michigan beach sand and applied citizen pressure with protests, press conferences, and a face-to-face meeting with the governor.

The state backed away from its decision, allowing the high schools to stay open. But a far larger battle remains: coming up with a plan to reverse the district’s decline, and in the process perhaps create a turnaround template for other struggling districts.

The stakeholders have now adopted a comprehensive approach that emphasizes community engagement.

State Deputy Treasurer Joyce Parker, who is chairing a newly formed advisory committee for the process, says the community strategy “is very unique and one we believe will allow us to identify what the real issues are and develop a more holistic approach."

When voters in Benton Harbor overwhelmingly supported Gretchen Whitmer to be Michigan’s next governor in the autumn of 2018, they could hardly have imagined that she would be the subject of their ire the following spring.

The change came after Governor Whitmer announced a plan to close the city’s two high schools, the main campus and a much smaller magnet school. Community resistance, which included a tense face-to-face meeting with the governor at a Benton Harbor church, was a major factor in motivating the state to back away from its decision and try a new approach, one that will keep the two high schools open.

Now that the city has won the initial skirmish, a far larger battle remains: coming up with a plan to reverse the district’s festering economic and academic decline, and in the process perhaps create a turnaround template for other struggling districts.

Michigan Deputy Treasurer Joyce Parker, who is chairing a newly formed advisory committee, believes the approach will succeed where others fell short.

Unlike earlier partnerships with state government, which tended to stress cooperative agreements between state officials and the local board of education, this initiative is emphasizing community engagement throughout the process. The advisory committee includes local business leaders, teachers, and clergy, as well as the state Department of Education.

“This process, if it provides the results we’re looking for, is one that we could look at for other school districts,” Ms. Parker says. “I suspect that some of the same issues that are taking place in Benton Harbor are in other districts – not only districts like Pontiac and Flint, but even rural districts. Using this community approach is very unique and one we believe will allow us to identify what the real issues are and develop a more holistic approach.”

In addition to the community involvement, another key component of the Benton Harbor approach is its comprehensive nature. Improving the high schools’ performance is an obvious focus, but the committee is exploring every segment of the educational environment, ranging from finances and properties to family engagement and student mental health. “This process is one that is much more comprehensive,” Ms. Parker affirms.

A once prosperous city

Benton Harbor is a small city on the shore of Lake Michigan, about a two-hour drive east from Chicago. In its earlier years, the city prospered due in part to its robust industrial base. As industry declined and with the onset of white flight, its population dwindled from a high of 19,136 in the 1960 census to 9,826 in a 2018 census estimate. Today, Benton Harbor is 85.6% African American, and almost 47% of its population lives in poverty.

The city has sustained a series of other setbacks, including riots in 2003 and coming under state emergency financial management in 2010. Benton Harbor is often compared with its neighbor across the St. Joseph River, the city of St. Joseph, which is predominantly white and more affluent. Lingering racial tensions came to national attention in the 1998 book “The Other Side of the River” by Alex Kotlowitz, which profiled how differently residents of the two cities reacted to the mysterious death of an African American teen from Benton Harbor.

Benton Harbor’s main high school was in the bottom 25% of high schools in U.S. News & World Report’s national educational survey last year. According to state Department of Education statistics for the 2018-19 school year, which used standardized test scores, fewer than 5% of Benton Harbor High School students were proficient in all subjects, compared with a statewide average of 42%.

Benton Harbor’s plunge in population has been a contributing factor in the sharp decline also seen in the district’s student enrollment. Perhaps even more profound is the rise of charter schools and other schools of choice. In this climate of competition for students, the numbers paint a picture of how Benton Harbor is faring. Enrollment is declining at a rate of about 5% to 10% each year. Of the K-12 students currently living within district boundaries, 64% are attending schools elsewhere.

By 2018, the district had racked up a debt of more than $18 million. This grim figure, combined with the substandard academic proficiency, spurred the state to make its proposal to close the high schools, parcel students out to neighboring districts, and concentrate on K-8 education.

One loss too many

With all the hammer blows that Benton Harbor has endured, the potential loss of its high schools was one loss too many for community leaders. They quickly drew a line in the Lake Michigan beach sand and applied citizen pressure with protests, press conferences, and the meeting with Governor Whitmer.

“This community has a lot of history and a lot of pride,” says Ms. Parker, the deputy state treasurer. “The school district is a focal point in the community. As a result, there are a lot of individuals who want to see the district intact. That level of history and pride is something directly related to this particular district.”

The schools are also one of the largest employers in Benton Harbor.

Getting the district’s financial house in order will mean chipping away at operating debt and deficits. One idea is to sell unused properties; another is to lobby legislators for funding reforms. Benton Harbor High School alumnus Marvin Haywood has another proposal: forgiveness of the district’s debt.

“Eighteen million dollars is a drop in the bucket from the state’s perspective,” Mr. Haywood said last month at the first of a series of community outreach meetings. “Other districts have $200 or $300 million in debt, but there’s never any talk of shutting them down.”

Committee members and school staff are aware that a set of problems that took decades to develop will take time to solve. Interim Superintendent Patricia Robinson says the goals of school administrators are measured: first stop the decline in enrollment and then boost the schools’ academic performance. One piece of the academic strategy is to establish benchmarks based on the proficiency test scores at nearby charter schools.

“We’re tasked with trying to re-create our district,” Ms. Robinson says. “Are we going to create something where all of our students come back? Most likely not. But it’s up to us to find ways to stop the decline and stabilize enrollment.”

Getting business owners involved

New Benton Harbor High School Principal Reedell Holmes, who arrived in November, was hired because of his experience as an administrator in Grand Rapids and Muskegon Heights – other challenged districts in Michigan – and his understanding of the culture that exists in urban districts. He has set to work increasing student attendance, boosting achievement scores in math and literacy, and building a positive atmosphere for both staff and students. Community outreach is another building block.

“My plan is to go out and shake hands with business owners and stakeholders and get them involved in the education process here. I want to get 20 businesses to adopt our school and be part of what we’re doing. I’ve done that everywhere I’ve gone,” Mr. Holmes says.

While the adults work to come up with a plan, the students find themselves dealing with a situation that has plenty at stake both for themselves and for the future of their schools. Tray’von Gentry, a soft-spoken junior who is the student representative on the advisory committee, has not noticed his peers experiencing any extra pressure to improve academically. His concerns are more prosaic: He wants to see more after-school activities for students, especially those who may not be interested in sports or band.

Citizens who spoke at the first community outreach session worried out loud that the narrative of an underperforming school district reflects unfairly on the students of the high schools, who Ms. Robinson says are 88% African American.

“They’re not wolves. They’re not thugs. They’re not dumb. They’re not illiterate. You have kids who are not being educated properly,” says former school administrator Reinaldo Tripplett. “That is a group of kids who are so deserving of a quality education.”

Hope, wariness, and tenacity

The mood at the outreach meeting was a mixture of hope and wariness. Memories of past efforts to improve the school district linger, accented by stories of promising beginnings that faded away in the face of a multiplicity of problems. Yet the same spirit of tenacity that helped the community reverse the decision to close the schools is being called on to fuel the hard work of rebuilding.

Benton Harbor residents, who identify strongly with the schools’ tiger mascot, realize they’ve entered a new and perhaps decisive phase.

“At one time in this community and the surrounding areas, the high school had a legacy of pride, integrity, and great accomplishment in academics, athletics, and in the community,” the Rev. William Whitfield said at the outreach meeting. “I’m proud to be a Benton Harbor Tiger, a Benton Harbor fighting Tiger. And we’re in a fight.”

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