Albion lost its high school; students did better. Is Benton Harbor next?

Combining very different student bodies is challenging, but in Marshall, it was successful.

Update: Gov. Whitmer to Benton Harbor High: Raise scores, balance books or close

A poor, majority-black high school with low test scores in a district drowning in debt.

That’s Benton Harbor today.

But in 2013, it was Albion, a similar-size community in mid-Michigan facing the same troubles and fighting the same possible outcome – the closing of the city’s only high school.

Both proponents and critics of the plan to now close Benton Harbor High School can point to the legacy of the Albion High closing to buttress their arguments.  Graduation rates for students who live in Albion have gone up substantially since they began being bused 13 miles to Marshall High School; Albion students are now graduating at rates well above the state average for African-American students.

But the 2013 closure of Albion High School and conversion of Albion’s schools to a K-8 district, billed as a way to save the lower schools, didn’t work. Three years later, in 2016, facing a growing exodus of students out of the district after the high school closed, Albion voters agreed to dissolve the district and allow Marshall Public Schools to annex what was left of the schools and its students.

Related: In Benton Harbor schools, a lesson for – and about – Gretchen Whitmer​
Related: Anguish in Benton Harbor as years of mistakes lead to a school’s likely demise
As deadline passes, Benton Harbor and state negotiate fate of high school

“I appreciate what Benton Harbor is going though; it’s a tenuous, divisive issue as you can imagine,” said Albion Mayor David Atchison. “Schools generally don’t close because we want to get rid of the schools. In the end, every community needs to look at what’s best for the children’s education.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has recommended Benton Harbor High School be closed, both because of staggeringly low academic achievement, and to help address an $18 million district deficit. The state wants Benton Harbor to convert to a K-8 district, and allow its high schoolers to attend one of at least 10 traditional and charter high schools in the region.

Whitmer gave the Benton Harbor School Board until this Friday, June 14,  to approve the plan, or risk having the entire district dissolved by a vote in the Republican-majority Legislature. The board has vowed not to even take a vote on the proposal.

Concerns raised at a series of public meetings in Benton Harbor ‒ the community’s desire to keep their local school and about whether Benton Harbor’s mostly African-American, low-income students would be accepted in wealthier, whiter school districts ‒ mirror those expressed in Albion in 2013.

Related: 13 Miles to Marshall: tough times lead very different high schools to merge

Several low-performing Michigan school districts have been closed in recent years.

Buena Vista Public Schools in Saginaw County and Inkster Public Schools in Wayne County were dissolved in 2013, with students sent to surrounding districts. The Michigan Department of Education says it has no data analyzing the academic performance of former students of those dissolved districts in their new schools.

The performance of Albion students has been tracked by Marshall Public Schools, however. So far, Albion students, who in general had struggled academically in their home high school, are doing better in Marshall.

According to data analyzed by the district, 94.3 percent of Albion high schoolers who attended Marshall High since the Albion collaboration began in 2013-14 have graduated or are on track to graduate at the end of four years of high school. That’s just slightly below the overall graduation or on-track rate of 97.4 percent at Marshall High School, said Marshall Superintendent Randy Davis.

But it’s a huge gain from grad rates in their old school building. In its last four years, Albion High School had graduation rates of 67 percent, 58 percent, 84 percent and 80 percent.

Among Albion-residing African-American students who switched to Marshall, 96.8 percent of females and 94 percent of males have graduated or are on track to graduate.

Across Michigan, the graduation rate in the 2017-18 school year for black females was 76 percent; for black males, 64 percent.

“You would think that we would succumb to the same pattern that the state has done,” Davis said. “Frankly, it’s surprisingly and gratefully much higher. I think we’re beating the odds.”

That success may be partly because of an intense effort to gain community and student buy-in for the high school merger, Davis said.

Marshall and Albion had a series of community meetings in the months leading up to the move, including a bonding weekend for students from both schools hosted by Albion College. Albion students were greeted on their first day at Marshall High School by the schools’ marching band.

In Benton Harbor, some community members say they are worried about racial disharmony if their students (92 percent African-American) are bused to majority-white schools. Albion (58 percent African-American) and Marshall (94 percent white) families had the same concerns.

In a 2014 Bridge article during the first year of the merged schools, Felicia Gardenhire said she was “one of those parents” complaining the loudest about the closing of Albion High School the previous spring. “I graduated from Albion,” she said. “My mom graduated from Albion. My son graduated from Albion. I wanted my daughter to graduate there, too.”

But after seven months at Marshall, Gardenhire and her daughter Tamiyah, a freshman in 2014, were converts. “The teachers are great,” Felicia Gardenhire said at the time. “The parents are great. She’s making lots of friends.”

One notable difference between the Albion experience and the possible future of Benton Harbor, though: all Albion high schoolers were bused to the same new high school. In Benton Harbor, students are likely to be dispersed among at least 10 schools.

Critics can also point to the fact that after Albion High School closed, enrollment at the elementary schools and middle schools plunged, dropping from 577 in 2013-14, the first year after the high school closed, to 454 two years later. Hemorrhaging students and the about $8,000 a year each student brought in state per-pupil funding, the district was forced to cut art, music, physical education and technology, Davis said.

By 2016, Albion voters faced a ballot issue asking if the school district should be annexed by Marshall Public Schools. The ballot issue passed with 71 percent of the vote.

Marshall Supt. Davis warned against drawing too tight of a connection between the closing of Albion High and the closure of the rest of the district.

“They had a great K-8 model,” Davis said of his counterparts in Albion at the time. “Their problem was the devastation of school of choice from other districts. They had 55 students leave the district in one swoop when a charter opened.

“It’s a complicated picture,” Davis said.

The same thing could happen in Benton Harbor, where parents could decide that if their children will have to leave the district for high school, they might just as well start them at another district in elementary school.

There is still one traditional public school elementary physically operating in Albion. Harrington Elementary, which had been an Albion Public Schools’ elementary, is now overseen by Marshall Public Schools with a Marshall staff. The switch in control hasn’t yet led to improved test scores in its first two years.

“Everybody would like to have our own school system; but there’s many challenges with that,” said Albion Mayor Atchison. “At this point, the majority of people, knowing what we know now, would see (sending their children to Marshall) as a positive.”

Back in Benton Harbor, officials and residents say they plan to hold a protest in Lansing on Tuesday. Whitmer will meet with Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad Tuesday afternoon.

Atchison, the Albion mayor, has seen it all before, and suggests Benton Harbor consider a similar course.

“My message to Benton Harbor would be: What is most important is the educational opportunities that will be available to the students,” Atchison said. “If the school is failing, changes need to take place. It’s the student education that must come first.”

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Letitia Kotas
Tue, 06/11/2019 - 10:37am

I think a stark difference is our school board and our community recognized that because we had so few students remaining we couldn’t offer the depth and breadth of classes the students deserved. They were taking online classes to fill in their schedules and combining Algebra 1 & 2 in one class, etc. There weren’t many electives. So we voluntarily asked Marshall to take our high schoolers in a cooperative agreement. It was hard, but we knew it was the right thing to do for our kids. We did the same thing mid-year a few years later with our middle schoolers and then with annexation. We just didn’t have enough students to get the resources that allowed us to provide them with the education they deserved. It hurt us so much to let them go, but we did it because we loved them and wanted the best for them.

Earl Newman
Tue, 06/11/2019 - 11:12am

Some persons will read this article and will conclude that the way to improve student achievement is to transfer under-performing students to different schools. Superintendent Davis is correct; it is a complicated question. One can only hope that the easy, simple conclusion is not the one people will settle for. We don't have any data in this article about what happened to the Albion students who did not transfer to Marshall HS. What was their experience like? To evaluate the effect that changing schools had on the several students' performance someone should collect data about how the students themselves assessed their experience. This article is interesting as journalism, but it leaves too many stones unturned to be useful as a guide to policy.

Wed, 06/12/2019 - 9:23am

As a former teacher at APS I totally agree.

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 11:24am

This is the whole problem we've bought with our community centered schools. Sure it may have made since in horse and buggy days and when kids actually walked to school, but those days are gone and this now makes as much sense as assigning you to a specific grocery store based on your address. So here in spite of the examples set by our international competitors, is BHPS's disaster because of some very specific political actors who based on their own interests, still insist on assignment (segregation) by zip code rather than a system of choices based a kid's interests and abilities.

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 12:41pm

"Horse and buggy days?" I rode a bus to middle and high school in the 1950s and 60s. Zip codes have very little to do with high schools. If Matt is suggesting that school choice and charters are the answer in Michigan, where's the evidence?
There is, however. one profound difference between Benton Harbor and Albion that I did not see discussed. In Albion, the high school students all went to one high school. In Benton Harbor, there are 10 possible districts that students might be able to choose from. It would seem to me that the Albion model is much more likely to foster student success. Keeping all the students in one school probably made the transition easier, and made the experience less of a shock. It also kept the Albion community engaged in the new high school, another plus. The situation in BH is further complicated with the legacy of racism that has long plagued the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph area.

Wed, 06/12/2019 - 1:17pm

Zooman, Strangely enough our European competitors who stomp the daylights out of us in every academic comparison rely on on a system that is far more individual based and flexible where they attend than yes our assignment by zip code or where you live (however you wish to describe this process of you live here so must go there!). And not only do they outperform us they do so while we outspend them by a considerable margin.
So you say there are really 10 different school districts in BHPS which are all delivering crappy results and are going bankrupt? Excuse me for thinking you are full of it.

Robyn A Tonkin
Tue, 06/11/2019 - 12:54pm

Matt, how is a high school education like going to the grocery store? the two are not the same, but we who read the Bridge can always count on you to have creative analogies to bolster your points. do you have children in high school in a rural school district? Is so, how far do you drive them in your car, twice a day? Do you lie about where they live, possibly facing a stiff fine, so you can get them into that school? Are you someone who lets your highschooler choose their own school, based on where their friends are going or the physical appearance of the school--because that's what people have told me they allow. I live where people make two 40 or 50 mile round trips daily to get their high school students to a school they want to attend. The kids want to go to this school because it's new and pretty, and has fancy sports amenities. In rural areas, the sports facilities are the driver behind school choice, because the student and parents have the irrational belief that the student is going to be a sports phenom, and will be awarded a four year all expense paid sports scholarship to a major university. If the child is awarded a sports scholarship at all, it is for some money for two years to someplace you never heard of--the child usually drops out, early in the sophmore year, if they go back after freshman year at all. Then they're back home, poundin' nails or waitressing in the summer, throwing plates of food in front of the tourists. Quite depressing, to say the least, when there was all that fanfare when they set off for Southeastern Oklahoma Basketmaking U. They would have been much better off staying in the public school in their home school district, where they can ride the bus, or drive their rusty pickup five miles to school, with the teachers who come to work, week after week, year after year, and strive to give them some life skills and employment skills, not ball dribbling skills. You know what Matt? In this day and age, life for the majority of people in this country is a narrow slog of work and limited to no potential for making it big, not a technicolor free market extravaganza of choice leading to limitless opportunity. Much more a matter of very limited opportunity, and playing musical school won't change that.

Wed, 06/12/2019 - 1:42pm

Robyn, Aside from your inability to understand my analogy, that assigning the school your kids must attend based on their address makes as much sense as assigning me a grocery store based on where I live, I guess I can't help you. I guess if I was a public school employee whose job depended on kids being forced to attend my school I'd better understand the feelings of so many Bridge commentors. Nor do I have an idea what you're talking about regarding school sports teams. But as I think after school sports should be independent and not even be a part of public schools I'm not sure where that goes, but again I might feel different if my job depended on school sports. And yes I gave my kids the choice of where they wanted to go to school - with our input. Some went to private, some public and some straddled both depending on what courses they wanted, with generally good results. Everyone should be so fortunate..

Ed Haynor
Thu, 06/13/2019 - 5:07pm

Since many/most community-oriented grocery stores no longer exist, being replaced by big box grocery stores, a person really doesn't have a grocery store of choice or having the luxury of being assigned one either.

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 12:37pm

I would suggest to the parents and students of Benton that they look at St. Helen/Roscommon. The Roscommon Schools decided to close the elementary school in St. Helen, put on extra rooms at the elementary in Roscommon, and bus the kids. The community of St Helen was very upset and put together a plan to purchase the school from the District and open a charter school. The results for our community and our students are wonderful. We now have Pre K to 12 in our community. This was a grass roots program, lots of community support and work. If the Benton Harbor families want their school, they can do it. St. Helen is on the wrong side of the tracks from Roscommon...we understand some of the feelings.

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 1:08pm

I’m interested in if the data presented in the article includes the graduation rate of The Opportunity High School. Currently Marshall Public Schools operates an Alternative Education program located in Albion. This article only sites graduation rates of Marshall High School. The data presented in this article could be vastly skewed unless the graduation rates of the alternative education program are also included. The rates may not be as good as they appear in this article.

Wed, 06/12/2019 - 9:27am

I am from Albion and you are spot on. Not “all” of the kids that attended Albion Public Schools go to Marshall. I would be curious about that inormation as well.

Wed, 06/12/2019 - 10:24am

Most recent four year graduation rate for the alternative high school is 50%:

Thu, 06/13/2019 - 4:23pm

Is there a reason the students are attending an " alternative " HS?

Dr Kurt
Tue, 06/11/2019 - 7:26pm

There is no easy answer when it comes to how to help low-income and low-performing schools. School choice is certainly not the panacea. In the city of Holland "school of choice" policies in the mid-90's resulted in a flight of high-performing students to other schools and left the city with less "per student" income making it difficult to provide the same level of services that were needed for those that remained. Also the average test scores dropped with no change in the teaching quality which perpetuated the cycle. As I said... this is a complex issue. Thank you for another thought-provoking article, Bridge!

Been Around
Tue, 11/05/2019 - 6:44pm

Great high schools do not make great cities/communities, rather great communities make great schools. Benton Harbor, like Albion, is a dysfunctional community where the vast majority of children are not being raised in two-parent homes, but instead are being raised by grandparents, foster parents, etc. Why have so many parents/guardians opted to send their children to neighboring districts? This seems to be the question that no one truly wants to ask/answer. When a school acquires a reputation as a holding tank for ill-behaved youth i.e., Albion and Benton Harbor, and students are not safe from threats of violence or actual violence everyone who can leave gets the hell out of Dodge asap. The teachers who stay or are hired are placed in the impossible situation of spending 90% of their time dealing with discipline problems and then being held accountable for state test scores. Teachers will take the first opportunity to leave after dealing with disrespectful, defiant, insubordinate students all day every day. The radical changes that were needed in Albion and are needed in Benton Harbor will never be enacted because it would require a complete change in the attitude of the community towards education. Students can only learn in a safe, orderly, disciplined environment which does not exist in Benton Harbor. And this smokescreen called graduation rates is a pile of crap. At schools like AHS and BHHS multitudes of students graduate every year as a result of grade inflation and social promotion. They go off to college or work and are completely unprepared for the demands made upon them due in large part to the ineffective instruction they have received for 13 years. Albion Schools closed, but the great majority of the students who went to Marshall and other schools are undoubtedly receiving a much higher caliber of academic training than if they had been forced to continue in attendance at a failing school. When the students of BHHS are sent to other schools (not an if, but a when) they will face many challenges, but they will definitely have access to a much improved academic environment. Whether or not they choose to take advantage of their opportunities will be up to each individual student.