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Partnership talks underway to keep Benton Harbor schools open

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -

With the fate of their school district on the line, Benton Harbor, county, and state leaders came together Thursday to find a solution.

“We have to have some honest conversations,” said Brian Whiston, the Michigan State Superintendent.

Whiston spoke bluntly at the meeting at the Benton Harbor Boys & Girls Club Thursday, where leaders gathered to begin forming a potential partnership between the school district and the state.

“Quite frankly, we know we’re behind,” Whiston said. “So we need more than a year’s worth of growth.”

The Benton Harbor Area Schools District is ranked in the bottom 5-percent statewide.

Data shown at Thursday’s meeting states in 2016, 0-percent of Benton Harbor eighth graders were proficient in math, along with only 3-percent of third graders.

And only 6-percent of the district’s third graders were proficient in reading, according to the data.

“And what I know is what has been happening – if you want to go back a year, two, three, five – it’s not ok,” said Dr. Shelly Walker, Benton Harbor’s superintendent.

Three of the district’s six schools are at risk of being shut down.

It was revealed at the meeting that the Michigan School Reform Office had recently recommended to the state that one of those schools be closed, and the other two be led by a CEO. 

Thursday’s meeting was the first step in avoiding that outcome.

“The ownership has to be at the local district level,” said Whiston. “It has to be within the community. And there has to be a commitment to this plan, that we will draft together, to make it work.”

The agreement would be a 3-year partnership between the state and the district.

Progress in the first 18 months would be tracked, and if there’s improvement, the schools will stay open for another 18 months.

If not, they’d either be closed, or a CEO would be brought in by the state to take over.

Whiston made clear the agreement would be put together by local leaders, but the state does have three requirements:

The district must focus on student achievement

The role of the board of education – to accept or reject recommendations made by the superintendent – must be understood and honored

The role of the superintendent – to make recommendations to the board on behalf of the district – must be followed

Whiston said he wants each authority to stay in their lane.

Dr. Walker said she’s ready.

“If we can stay our focus on the babies and the children to ensure they become what they’re capable of, and not get distracted by the variables that adults get hindered by, we’re going to make a difference,” she said.

The agreement has to be signed and submitted to the governor by the end of April.

If it is approved, Whiston said one other requirement would be that Dr. Walker stays in her position as superintendent through those next three years, to ensure administrative stability.

While Thursday’s meeting did get a little tense at points – as attendees like Mayor Marcus Muhammad spoke up about his frustration with how the state intervenes – overall, it seemed productive.

Dr. Walker said a community meeting to discuss Thursday’s meeting will take place on Monday, March 27 at 4:15 p.m. at Benton Harbor High School. 

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