Looking toward the future: The rise of Benton Harbor Area Schools Part 2
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. - It’s a district that once thrived but over the years, some pieces have fallen through the cracks.
"Academic achievement, chronic absenteeism, truancy, finances and debt," Benton Harbor Schools Superintendent Dr. Andrae Townsel said.
After a threat of closure by the state in 2019, Benton Harbor Area Schools was given one more chance to fix the district's issues.
"It really starts at the leadership level," he said.
Dr. Townsel was hired as superintendent in charge of changing the struggling school district.
"What he did was he encouraged us all to set the bar. Meet the bar, and go beyond the bar," Darnell Johnson, a teacher, and a former student said.
"Day one first off I knew I had to build relationships. The hardest thing to find is trust. So from day one I had to gain trust with the community to let them know that I'm here, I live right here in the heart of the city, and don't plan on moving any time soon," Townsel who isn't scared of the workload said. "The challenge is getting trust from stakeholders and movers and shakers in the political world. For decades, those individuals saw the downfall of benton harbor area schools and in some cases some has probably said hey, they need to shut it down. So garnering that trust and letting them know that no, we're not going anywhere.”
And just as the district was starting to gain some traction, the pandemic hit.
"Okay, of course when the pandemic and all that stuff happened," Johnson said.
"So now we have to make some adjustments now we have to do things a little differently but we still have a job to do we still have kids deserve we still have a district to uphold," Danny Jennings, a former student, and a current teacher said.
"Our first task was to survive a pandemic. And not only are were surviving during the pandemic were thriving during the pandemic," Townsel said.
Now, the district is in an upswing, despite what 2020 has thrown.
“I'm very excited to look at our spring in weta scores from our young people I've heard from our principals we saw growth in many areas," he said. "In December we had our annual audit and the audit which is on our board meeting our audit said that we're improving in our business office with our finances. I mean, personally, I expect us to be at zero, debt, and our fund balance within the next year, year and a half.
When it comes to adding and retaining students, that was impacted by the pandemic but Townsel said he's positive it will go up.
"You know, we will see what that looks like. After the pandemic. I think we've been able to be steady during the pandemic but our goal is to not only retain but recruit our students back," he said. "We want people to choose Benton Harbor Area Schools as opposed to choosing other districts that go to, we lose about 3000 students to neighboring districts so that's about $24 million, we can get that back."
"When I first started, I remember in the first-grade schools was actually packed. And it was a lot of students that attended Benton Harbor. But over the years, it just started to go down now. And now actually, it's going back up," Tyler Meeks, a Benton Harbor High School Senior said.
And as student retention slowly improves... former tigers are teaching them.
“I'm 8th grade, a middle school teacher for math," Johnson said.
"My first job teaching here was 2002, I came as a substitute teacher," Jennings said. "There's nothing like serving the hometown community.”
The students, who chose to stay with the district, are continuing to excel even outside of the halls.
"Benton Harbor youth of the year, boys and girls club youth of the year. I am a captain on both the basketball and football team," Meeks said. “I always wanted to be a tiger. So just being able to get that opportunity and work so hard for it. I wasn't going to give it up like that.”
"Here in the coming years I hope to see not only our academic achievement increase, I debt decrease, but our enrollment increase, what I love to see is enhanced facilities, enhance learning experiences for our young people, and I hope to see smiling faces that families, and their kid's faces and the pride of the tiger anytime they come to Benton Harbor," Townsel said.
The district moving forward and paving the way for students like Senior Tyler Meeks….
"It taught me a lot. It actually helped me grow as a person before," he said.
“I learned that you can go through life just sitting in a corner," he said. "For colleges prepared me by giving me the classes that I needed in order to go towards my degree. I want to be a civil engineer”
"It's starting to thrive. And I want to be a part of that growth," Johnson said. "My mom showed me a poster of downtown Benton Harbor. It was nice and colorful, and I'm looking at the picture. I want Benton harbor to get back to and above because we can do it.”
“I just hope that the other students after me just bite into it, and take the opportunity that is given," Meeks said.
The problem didn’t happen overnight, so neither will the solution. But Dr. Townsel is hopeful that he and his tiger team are on the right path to move forward.