Benton Harbor, Michigan, is a city thrust into the national spotlight because of a proposal by Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer to close the district’s one high school.
The problems facing the school district are severe. According to the state, only three percent of third-graders read at grade level and fewer than three high school juniors have been deemed “college-ready” in each of the last five years. Enrollment is down — the families of most children living in the district choose to send them to school elsewhere — and the system is drowning in $18.4 million in debt.
Since that proposal — close the school, in exchange for the state forgiving the district’s debt, the Andrews University community has rallied to help find an alternative solution. The high school is located 12 miles from the university.
On June 21, Andrews University president Andrea Luxton issued the following statement:
As Benton Harbor Area Schools (BHAS) and the Benton Harbor High School identify and pursue robust solutions and viable next steps for the future of the high school in response to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s June 18 letter, Andrews University stands in solidarity with the students, parents and community of Benton Harbor Area Schools as they consider and define a way forward.
We do recognize the historic challenges faced by the BHAS school district and the need for an increasingly strong academic environment for the children of Benton Harbor. We also share in the hope for an initial endorsement of those formal strategies and proposed solutions outlined by BHAS, which were acknowledged and affirmed in a June 14 letter to the school district from the Michigan State Board of Education and its vice president, Pamela Pugh.
Those plans moving forward include a commitment by Andrews University to support the school district in creating and implementing solutions that includes benchmarks and accountability that will address and meaningfully respond to the deep concerns of our community regarding its high school. For Andrews University itself, that will include a commitment to work alongside BHAS in certifying and preparing a pool of qualified long-term substitute teachers that will strengthen the educational outcomes of these students and the schools they attend.
We also support our colleagues and neighbors in Benton Harbor in affirming that an effective school system is essential for a community and that, in particular, local high schools are at the center of the identity and upward mobility of many urban and rural towns across our country. We believe that a system of effective local high schools is especially important in underserved communities that face multiple social and economic challenges. As a result, the closure of any institution that plays an important role in that community would have a devastating blow on the community’s psyche, with an impact that can reverberate generationally. In our own community, that includes the risks to the present and future strength of the City of Benton Harbor, if the proposed school closure were to come to pass.
We recognize and celebrate that Benton Harbor High School has matriculated thousands of students for nearly 150 years. Those graduates have gone on to make significant contributions in every area of life. The school itself has won many state and national championships. That tradition continues: Benton Harbor High School, its students and graduates, are a central unifier in the community despite the acknowledged challenges the school is facing.
In summary, Andrews University is committed to supporting the students, teachers, parents and administrators of the Benton Harbor Area Schools and, in particular, is committed to partner with the school district in ensuring that the children of Benton Harbor have a robust and successful educational experience within the city in which they live. For that reason, Andrews University is fully committed to join with Benton Harbor Area Schools as they identify and implement best practices to have more certified instructors, more engaging classrooms, and provide more family and parenting support.
Ultimately, Andrews University stands with Benton Harbor, and we actively pray for, support and celebrate the community’s enduring spirit that shines on, even against and amidst these challenging situations.
Update: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Benton Harbor school board trustees reached a tentative agreement yesterday (June 26) in Lansing to save Benton Harbor High School. State officials say that if the school board accepts the plan, the high school won’t be closed.
Debbie Michel, Lake Union associate director of Communication