Everything in the dark comes to the light.
~Former BHHS student.
Across the country, citizens, parents, and educators have watched their public schools close due to underfunding and high-stakes student testing. These schools are predominately black, Hispanic, and poor.
Public education with elected school boards are democratic institutions. Closing a school or school district, or a state takeover, is seen as an attack on democracy. It steals a community’s right to school ownership.
Right now this is playing out in the community of Benton Harbor, Michigan.
These headlines say it best: Anguish in Benton Harbor as Years of Mistakes Lead to a School’s Likely Demise. Mistakes? Students are being punished for being poor.
Americans should pay close attention to Benton Harbor, because even if your schools seem fine, sooner or later privatization will touch every school in the country.
Funding is always a problem for poor schools. Benton Harbor’s schools are $16 million in debt.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer is a Democrat who rode into the governorship with promises to be a friend to public education. She says the state will eliminate $10 million of the debt by closing the high school and bussing students to ten outside area schools. The threat is that if they don’t do this, they will have to close all the schools.
Closing BHHS will devastate the community.
Consider that America is a rich country. Leaders find money for their priorities.
Corporate school reformers are permitted to throw millions at their personal initiatives to remake schools into their vision.
In 2017, The New York Times published a report “Michigan Gambled on Charter Schools. Its Children Lost.”
Michigan’s former Republican Gov. John Engler said charters would be a “renaissance.”
Michiganders Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, backed pro charter lobbying groups in the state. They also support The Mackinac Center a conservative nonprofit which promises to challenge government overreach….
Betsy DeVos speaks about “Education Freedom” and “Parent Empowerment.”
Isn’t this her cue to step in for Benton Harbor? Shouldn’t parents and citizens there get the choice to keep their public school open?
Think about Benton Harbor and the cities where massive public school closures have taken place. Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and small cities too, and many others, while parents and citizens begged to keep their schools open.
When has any school closure improved education for students?
Benton Harbor sits near Lake Michigan, over the river from affluent St. Joseph.
In 2011, a New York Times report “Now That the Factories Are Closed, It’s Tee Time in Benton Harbor, Mich.” describes a new golf course built on the edge of town on Lake Michigan. They describe Benton Harbor this way:
During its heyday as a racially mixed, economically vibrant manufacturing center through the 1960s, Benton Harbor grew into a home to more than 20,000 people. Today its population is closer to 10,000, about 90 percent of whom are black. The per capita income of its residents is roughly $10,000; about 60 percent of its population is on some form of public assistance.
It has been said that Benton Harbor is a dismal place. But don’t tell that to the good folks fighting for Benton Harbor High School.
There’s been negative press. A student fight in BHHS that got attention. Their football team did well, but the coach resigned citing overcrowded classrooms and teacher shortages, among other difficulties.
But high schools always have problems. Teens struggle, especially poor teenagers.
The State of Michigan and the U.S. Department of Education should intervene with help. They could call on Michigan’s university scholars, the school board, and the people of Benton Harbor to work out difficulties, not shutter the school!
What about making BHHS into a magnet school? Instead of sending students outside, create an interesting school environment to bring students to Benton Harbor High School! This isn’t a new idea.
Also, all is not dismal at BHHS. There’s good news too! Many BHHS students have gone on to great colleges and done well! Some have returned to support their school.
Here’s the band at the Blossomtime Parade, a simple glimpse of how a school helps make a community.
Gov. Whitmer spoke of respecting educators. But her plan sounds disorganized. She says BHHS students will have opportunities at Lake Michigan Community College, but the college seemed to know nothing about new students. Concerns are that more students will cause overcrowded conditions.
And there’s this.
The school board recognizes that the school lies on waterfront property.
The land upon which the Benton Harbor High School sits with its athletic fields and adjacent School Board properties are the LAST MAJOR UNDEVELOPED WATERFRONT PROPERTIES in Berrien County, Michigan. Is this just a coincidence, given that your office just told our Board representatives on 5/24/19 that your plan to close Benton Harbor High School has major (but unnamed) supporters in the nearby business community?
When asked at the meeting how the land will be used if the school closes, Whitmer claimed she had no authority over the land and did not promote such a thing. But she didn’t completely answer the question either.
If they want to sell that land, couldn’t they negotiate with the community and make plans to build a brand new Benton Harbor High School in another location?
The governor seems to have already made up her mind about Benton Harbor High School.
Even the Michigan Education Association supports the closure fearing the legislature will close the whole school district. Since when does a teachers union not stand in support of its teachers and public schools?
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad, a well-respected alum from BHHS, said to those who will close his high school.
If there’s no support to keep Benton Harbor High School in the city of Benton Harbor, then there’s no support for the Senior PGA, a Steelhead Triathlon or any other grand excursion where people want to come and turn Benton Harbor into a haven for the rich and powerful while the children in the community wallow in hell.
Public schools are the democratic heart of the community. When they go, the foundation of the nation is in serious trouble. When all our public schools are gone what will our country be like?
James S. Katakowski says
I am beginning to get really disappointed with Gov. Whitmer and if the MEA is in on this deal to close the BHHS and am super disappointed. As you say make this a magnet school bring it back to the glory days of 50-60’s. The PGA stole the beachfront property and it seems only business wins here in BH and that is wrong. Whitmer better change fast. She had better stand up for the poorer districts no more EM’s and get it done the right way.
Nancy Bailey says
Democrats are not much better than Republicans when it comes to school reform. Gov. Whitmer should work with the people of Benton Harbor to come up with viable solutions to the difficulties they face there. The people in a community know best their school needs.
Thanks, James. Always appreciated.
Roy Turrentine says
Sounds like an old story. Somebody wants to use the property to make money. At some level, the wealthy in our country have an enhanced duty to help create positive communities with their wealth. All the schools in our county sit on land that once belonged to people who sold it to the county for less than they would have acquired with other development techniques.
Nancy Bailey says
How sad, Roy. In the case of Benton Harbor, time will tell. There’s no reason the state can’t work with the parents and citizens there to come up with a solution that all are agreeable to.