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With city in limbo, Benton Harbor prepares new pitch to save its high school

Benton Harbor high school poster

Update: New Michigan school superintendent: Keep Benton Harbor High open

BENTON HARBOR—The crowd was sparse and subdued Thursday night at Benton Harbor High School, perhaps three-dozen parents, teachers and ministers munching on cold cuts and cookies while officials quietly professed determination to save the community’s sole high school.

It was a notable contrast from previous meetings in Benton Harbor since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer threatened in May to close the academically struggling high school following the upcoming school year. In those past meetings, hundreds packed the school’s auditorium, clapping to the school fight song and cheering fiery speeches.

But two months into the battle to save its high school, Benton Harbor seems less on fire than in limbo. Veteran teachers are fleeing the district for schools that aren’t in danger of closure. School officials are hatching plans to try to slow the hemorrhaging of student enrollment to surrounding charter schools they fear will accelerate with the current uncertainty. And negotiations with the state over the fate of the high school – and the entire district – have slowed to a virtual standstill.

“The parents I talk to don’t know what’s going on,” said the Rev. Steven McCoy of McCoy Memorial Church of God in Christ. “When you’re in limbo, you make bad choices.”

The Benton Harbor Area School Board is putting the finishing touches on a plan to save the high school. Their goal is to give the proposal to Whitmer and state officials in the coming days, board vice president Joseph Taylor told the gathering Thursday.

Taylor did not offer details of the plan. But Daniel Martin, a Grand Rapids attorney representing the board, offered a broad outline to Bridge.

The board’s plan tentatively calls for a four-year period to improve test scores and reduce the district’s $18 million debt.

That’s far longer than the state’s most recent proposal, crafted three weeks ago, which gave the district one year to meet academic goals; if those goals weren’t met, the high school would close.

Benton Harbor’s latest proposal would guarantee the high school remains open for four years, with goals for academic growth and debt reduction each year over that period. Each year that goals were met, an additional year of goals would be added, creating a rolling four-year improvement plan.

Despite fiery rhetoric from some in Benton Harbor, Martin said he believed the state was negotiating in good faith, and that the district and the state are not far apart on improvement metrics for the district.

Whitmer administration officials could not be reached for comment Thursday night. Earlier Thursday, Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said only that “discussions are ongoing.”

In May, Whitmer and the state treasury department released a plan to close Benton Harbor High School, with the students dispersed to 10 nearby traditional and charter high schools beginning in the 2020-21 school year. Benton Harbor would be converted to a K-8 district.

If the board didn’t agree to close the high school, Whitmer said in May she would ask the Legislature to dissolve the district completely.

The district has been one of the lowest academically performing districts in the state for years. No junior in the past five years was considered “college ready” by scores on standardized tests. Six years after graduation, just 6 percent of the class of 2011-12 had earned an associate’s degree or higher – one sixth the state average.

The closure plan caused an uproar in the low-income, majority-black community. What was characterized as a framework of an agreement reached June 26 would have kept the high school open if the district improved academic outcomes and paid down debt. State officials believed they had a deal, but the board rejected the agreement July 3, leading to a flurry of accusations from both sides.

In the 17 days that followed, the two sides have met just once.

The impasse and the uncertainty it has created has chipped away at an already fragile school district. As many as a half-dozen veteran teachers, many with more than 20 years of experience in Benton Harbor schools, have fled the district this summer, further hollowing out a district that already uses long-time substitutes to lead 42 percent of its classes.

“These are teachers who know our schools and our community,” said Acting Superintendent Patricia Robinson. “They’re leaving because of uncertainty about their jobs.”

The district currently has 33 unfilled teaching positions – about one third of its total teaching staff – and two vacant principal posts.

“We’ve weathered other storms before,” Robinson said. “We’ve handled other challenges.”

At Thursday’s meeting, community leaders discussed plans to go door to door to try to persuade families to send their children to Benton Harbor schools. Currently, fewer than half of the city’s children attend its public schools, with the rest attending charter schools or surrounding public school districts.

“If we are going to save not just the high school, but our district, it has to be a community effort,” McCoy said.

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