Learning from the past: The rise of Benton Harbor Area Schools Part 1

NOW: Learning from the past: The rise of Benton Harbor Area Schools Part 1

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. - It’s black history month and one school district rich in not only black leaders but educators is Benton Harbor Area Schools.

The district, as ABC57 has been telling you for years has been through quite a bit of turmoil, but it’s the continued mission of the Benton Harbor Tigers to come out on top stronger than ever.

Two years ago there was a much different picture at Benton Harbor Area Schools. A threat of closure, millions of dollars of debt, and students leaving the school district at an alarming rate. This isn’t a story of failure but the rise of a school integral to the community.

"From what I know Benton Harbor Area Schools has always been an excellent school system," BHAS Superintendent Dr. Andrae Townsel said.

“I'm a 1995 graduate of Benton Harbor High School and born and raised here in Benton Harbor," Danny Jennings, a former student and now teacher in the district said. “I grew up a 3-minute walk from here, and I live in that very house right now. I always saw people walking past my house, coming from Benton Harbor High School wearing orange and black carrying football helmets and so I always wanted to be a tiger, and I felt like there was something sacred about being a tiger being from Benton Harbor.”

"Even before I became a student here at the high school, or even back to my elementary years of 3rd, 4th grade going to school at north shore elementary way back. I've always wanted to be a tiger," Darnell Johnson, a teacher in the district and former student said. "It was really a place of 'thrive' as well, I must say. And the reason being is because we had a good staff that kept a good communication with our parents.”

"Over the years, over many decades. There has been a decline, not only in student enrollment but also in academic achievement," Townsel said.

"You're looking at about 1200 to 1500 students, so it was a much bigger school, school of choice wasn't in effect during that time so the only places that people went, aside from Benton Harbor High School were Eau Claire and Coloma," Jennings said. “School choice is a big issue because an inner-city school is the one school that never benefits from school of choice. Once you enter a situation where you hear a lot of conversation saying, well this is going wrong and this is going bad. These people are fighting. So you're taking so many students out because you think different is going to provide them better. And it leaves us with just a select few so it continues to deteriorate, year after year.”

"Well before 2019, we had issues. And some of the things that felt that went wrong, was that the disconnect between the school and the parent was, was cut for whatever reason," Johnson said.

As we reported in February 2019, “the future of bhas now in doubt after a change in state law throws the district into turmoil.

"Academic achievement, chronic absenteeism, truancy, finances, and debt," Townsel said. "So I'll say summer 2019. It got very serious, you know, the high school was proposed to be closed. And the district. If they didn't accept the high school plan was potentially proposed to be dissolved.”

"It felt like there was an attempt to move the heart from the body," Jennings said. “I felt like are you kidding me when I heard, close the high school like, how dare you, like how, what, what do we do if that happens, that means that everyone eventually at some point is going to want to leave Benton Barbor.”

"That's like ripping the heart out of the community. This is the heartbeat of the community. There's no doubt about that," Townsel said.

Then everything changed.

“Our Governor and the Lieutenant Governor came here to get the lay of the land and the community stood up, everyone came out within the community. Advocated and shared their voice with why it would be a problem if the high school went away, why it would be a problem that the district no longer existed. And, you know, shout out to the governor and our team they listened," he said. “They allowed us to work with the department of treasury to first and foremost find the Superintendent.”

"And so, you know, Andrae was hired and the state was like, we'll give you another chance," Jennings said.

"His plan is solid. His plan is doable and it inspires the rest of our community to follow the same path as far as anything outside of that," Johnson said.

"My first job teaching here was 2002, I came as a substitute teacher," Jennings said. "Out of my 19 years as a professional. I spent about 16 or 15 or 16 of them in bed harbor area schools."

But why does he always come back? "There's nothing like serving the hometown community," he said.

“I remember when this same community was rioting. At one point in time, and things went downhill, and, and people were losing their homes and people losing their jobs and all kinds of stuff was going on, but now I see an upswing, the momentum is starting to change," Johnson said. “A solid family foundation in conjunction with a solid academic plan school plan. This community can be right back to where it used to be and I want to be a part of that growth.”

This is Part 1 of our series on Benton Harbor Schools. This Thursday we dive into how the district is doing now, what the new Superintendent has accomplished and what community members who happen to be former students think of it all.

If you have any questions, reach out to us and we can get them answered! [email protected]

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