BENTON HARBOR — Poverty and race and the impact they have on education will be explored in November when Lake Michigan College puts on a play about a fictional Chicago high school that is facing closure at the end of the school year.

“Exit Strategy,” written by Chicago playwright Ike Holter, was first performed in May 2014 at Jackalope Theater in Chicago – a year after the Chicago School Board voted to close 49 elementary schools and one high school.

Paul Mow, LMC theatre coordinator and stage director, said the play is incredibly relevant locally considering the continuing threat from the state to close Benton Harbor High School.

“It’s a cautionary tale about a high school slated for closure, and it’s great fodder for what’s happening in our community,” he said. 

The future of the high school has been under a shadow since May, when state officials told Benton Harbor school board trustees to agree to close the school at the end of the 2019-20 school year or the entire district could be shut down. The reasons given were the district’s high debt and the students’ chronically low scores on the state’s standardized test.

The trustees have opposed all plans where the high school could possibly be closed and are currently working with the state to establish a joint advisory committee, which will have six months to come up with a plan to move the district forward.

“These are not always easy subjects to talk about, but that’s when the power of theater is at its best,” Mow said.

The play doesn’t hold back any punches.

“It’s a lot of intense speech and ‘f’ bombs,” Mow said. “It’s pretty in your face.”

How closely does the play capture the feeling at Benton Harbor High School?

Brenda Matthews, registrar at Benton Harbor Area Schools, said it is spot-on. In the play, she portrays “Sadie,” a longtime teacher with the district who, she said, loves and hates her job at the same time.

“Her character is totally me,” Matthews said. “I love the students. I hate what they’re going through. I love the district (but) hate what the district is going through.”

She said all of the play’s characters have counterparts at the high school.

“I can see so many of our staff members in every one of these characters,” she said. “Even the environment, the atmosphere in the script is the environment and atmosphere at Benton Harbor High School. The leadership, the wants, the fighting and losing but constantly wanting to fight. Everything about it is so ironic. It’s scary, but it’s exciting to know that this isn’t just happening to us. It’s happened before. And to see it in words, it almost takes my breath away.”

Gregory Hill, a June graduate of Benton Harbor High School, portrays “Donnie,” a student determined to save the school.

He said the play captures the same feelings of frustration, anger and uncertainty that were felt at his high school after students and staff learned of the state’s proposal.

“When I heard it, it was just distasteful. I couldn’t believe it,” said Hill, who was named Mr. Benton Harbor in January. “Automatically, I wanted to know what I could do to help so just like Donnie, I was fighting to save the school.”

He said he made a PowerPoint presentation and passed out petitions, along with speaking at school board meetings, to show his support for keeping the high school open.

“I did a lot of (media) interviews,” he said. “There’s no way that my voice wasn’t heard because of the amount of stuff that I did.”

Hill said people should see the play because it is something that is real and is happening to urban communities across the nation.

Matthews said taking Benton Harbor High School away from the community would tear it apart.

“Reading this (play), I have to catch myself and pull myself back,” she said. “I don’t want to equate this too much to the high school, but it brings out raw, real emotions. To me, it feels like this writer came to our high school and just walked around and then wrote his screen play. We’re fighting for our district. Every day is a struggle.”

She said the Benton Harbor community bleeds orange and black and loves the high school, but residents are getting tired.

“There’s always something,” she said. “When the state came in, it was like a fear tactic to our community. The government is bigger than we are. ... When there’s constantly something all the time, you get kind of used to it.”

Why close schools?

In the months leading up to the closure of the 50 Chicago schools in 2013, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel was quoted as saying that the closures would lead to a “brighter future” for Chicago’s students by raising academic achievement.

In May, Michigan officials made the same argument – that closing Benton Harbor High School would allow the district to focus on raising student achievement in grades K-8 while the high school students would benefit from increased opportunities at surrounding high schools.

Did it work in Chicago?

No, according to a report released in 2018 by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. That study found that:

• students from closed schools experienced a long-term negative impact on math test scores;

• students from welcoming schools had lower than expected reading test scores the first year after the merger, but rebounded the next year;

• absence and suspension rates were unchanged for all students.

“Closing schools – even poorly performing ones – does not improve the outcomes of displaced students, on average,” the study’s authors reported in their summary. “Studies that find positive effects on displaced students only happened in cases with fewer disruptions, such as phase-outs, or when students attended top-performing schools. The affected schools included in this study closed immediately and the majority of students did not attend top-performing schools.”

The students from the closed schools in Chicago are suffering in more ways than academically, said Aja Reynolds, a recent graduate from the University of Illinois-Chicago with a doctorate in education policy studies. Reynolds was involved in efforts to keep the schools open.

“Ninety percent (of the schools) were lost in black and brown communities ... so many students have a much longer commute to schools and have had a tougher time,” said Reynolds, who moved to Detroit in August to accept a position as a visiting assistant professor at Wayne State University in the College of Education in Detroit. “... And there is 13 percent (of students) that we don’t know where they went.”

She said the school closures are part of the city’s broader efforts to push poor, minority families out of the city.

“In the last 20 years, we’ve lost over 200,000 black population,” she said. “... A lot of the city’s restructuring and marketing has been to try to appeal to either white families coming back into the city as well as appeal to younger white professional workers. ... That’s what we’ve been seeing with the overall gentrification.”

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege