Building Benton Harbor: A reviving school district

NOW: Building Benton Harbor: A reviving school district

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- In spring 2019, a battle erupted between the state and Benton Harbor Area Schools over permanently closing the high school.

The Department of Treasury noted the district’s $16 million in debt and academic achievement continuing to plummet, but, gave Benton Harbor a chance to turn it around and the district’s new superintendent is bringing promise and a plan.

“I followed Benton Harbor’s story for a number of years and was always interested, even as a student in Washington D.C. and I said if given the opportunity to serve in a district like Benton Harbor, I would,” said Superintendent Dr. Andrae Townsel.

Battle tested and battle approved — that’s how Townsel described the skillset that ultimately led him to Benton Harbor.

A Howard University graduate, with certification in National Urban Superintendent Development plus School Turnaround Certification from Harvard University.

Townsel said he watched the situation unfold when the state intervened last year with its proposal to close the high school.

When the district was given one more opportunity to turn things around, Townsel wanted the job.

“I believe we’re going to be a dream team and a model for how a school board and superintendent interact and how you level up from an urban setting,” said Townsel.

But the circumstances Townsel was walking into would have turned many educators away — low graduation levels, high drop-out rates, deep district debt and lack of college preparedness.

Plus — the district had been understaffed for years.

Townsel said he recognized the problems and changes first start at the leadership level.

“I heard loud and clear that teachers were not being paid equally to teachers in neighboring districts and the first thing we did was looked at how we can pay our teachers accordingly so we can be competitive,” said Townsel. “Teachers who received 10% cuts, we gave that back, teachers who had been frozen on their salary scale, we increased their steps.”

Heading into this school year, the district was finally fully staffed once again.

It also helps to have a staff from the city they are serving, like Dillondria Barnes, principal at Discovery Elementary.

“When I was in school that was at the time when we had a lot of staff who cared and when I wanted to come back, I wanted to give the same thing,” said Barnes.

And being able to relate to the challenges students in the district face, like Fred Roseburg, principal at Fair Plain Middle School.

“Some of the same trials and tribulations they deal with, I dealt with, and if I can share my story to help a kid, then I will,” said Roseburg. “The things they’re going through I can relate to because at one point I was too.”

But the faculty also had to adapt to new challenges brought from the coronavirus pandemic, juggling not only saving the school district, but providing a robust educational experience from home.

“Spectrum Health Lakeland supported us with a grant for 300 Wi-Fi hotspots, Healthy Harbor – which has high speed internet access – opened their doors to young people to learn and have a healthy meal at the same time, Second Baptist Church said they’re willing to open up their community center for young people to have access to the internet,” said Townsel.

All three educators also very much aware of the responsibility they hold as role models whose influence could change the trajectory for these students’ lives.

“We have wonderful kids, wonderful staff, wonderful parents and we want people to know Benton Harbor Area Schools is a great place to be, despite what people may hear,” said Roseburg.

“This is the foundation of a child’s success story, it’s important to learn what that child is interested in, make them feel safe, let them know that you care about them,” said Barnes.

“Academics, arts and athletics will continue to thrive here in Benton Harbor,” said Townsel. “There’s a legacy, there’s pride in this city, and we’re going to bring it all out.”

ABC57’s Building Up Benton Harbor series concludes Wednesday with the story on the city’s growing Arts District.

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