BENTON HARBOR — With enough time and space, Benton Harbor Area Schools can do what it needs to do academically and take charge of its destiny.
That’s how organizers of a parent rally at Benton Harbor High School summarized their objectives Thursday, in continuing to make the case against closing the school next year as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer initially proposed in May.
One year to get Benton Harbor’s academic house in order isn’t enough, as the governor has suggested in her latest proposal, school board Vice President Joe Taylor said.
“I want to let you know right now that we aren’t asking for one year. We’re asking for four. We had a five-year agreement (with the state), and that agreement still stands,” he said.
Taylor said that the board is working up a new plan, which it hopes to present to the governor’s office today.
“It’s a robust plan, and we’re probably going to have a mediator, too. But we believe that this will suffice. Stay tuned. Don’t worry. I’m not worried, and we’ll be okay,” he said.
Benton Harbor High School Assistant Principal Wil Bledsoe seconded those thoughts during time set aside for staff introductions and comments.
Only then can the district keep tabs on incoming freshman and follow their academic progress, he added.
“Yes, we do need more than one year – literally, five more. As we get our freshmen on track, the state will see that we’re doing the job that’s necessary, and we won’t have worry about them coming in and taking over our school,” Bledsoe said. “Because we’re going to take care of the business of educating our students so we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
Whatever solution emerges from the talks between the board and the state will have to mean taking closure off the table, while giving the district more than a year – and the financial resources it needs to turn its situation around, said the Rev. R. Chester Gulley, of New Covenant Community Baptist Church.
“The clergy has spoken very loud in this community, and in our churches, that we need to save our district, save our schools. I’ve seen what has happened in other areas, and certainly, we don’t want that to happen here,” he said.
About 50 people attended Thursday’s rally, sponsored by the Southwest Michigan Ministerial Alliance.
Thursday’s rally was meant to update parents and residents of what’s happened since Whitmer’s initial announcement, as well as inspire them to take a greater part in the district’s future, said Pastor Steve McCoy of McCoy Memorial Church of God in Christ.
Those attending also had the chance to talk with staff and ask questions about what’s happening in the district.
Saving the high school from closing won’t be enough, because plenty of work is ahead to turn around the district academically and financially, McCoy said in brief opening remarks.
“The purpose is to hear from the parents, hear how they feel, and what ideas or suggestions they can bring,” he said.
Interim Superintendent Patricia Robinson said the district is working on several new initiatives, including academic intervention programs to help students stay on track.
The district is piloting an online registration program, which will save parents from having to physically visit the district to enroll their child, she added.
Robinson also expects more aggressive student recruiting efforts to get underway, in hopes of reversing years of declining enrollment.
That effort will require “going outside, and doing some footwork – knocking on doors, and going into the apartment complexes, and getting some of our kids back (into BHAS),” she said.
Taylor couldn’t elaborate on the board’s latest plan, or its response, but remained positive that both sides can work out a way to keep the high school open, he said afterwards.
“When you’re in a partnership, when you’re in a negotiation, you want to make sure that you’re negotiating correctly, and not running off at the mouth when we’re trying to create a bond,” Taylor said. “That’s what we’re doing now. We’re working this out.”
Thursday’s rally isn’t a one-off, McCoy said after the rally.
“A lot of parents have questions – what the district is offering, what the district is going to do, are the kids going to be educated, are the kids going to be safe? That’s what staff have put together – a plan, an idea, to make sure that all these questions are answered coming into the near future,” he said.
Whatever the state does, the community will have to get involved and stay involved, McCoy said.
“It has to be a community effort – the community has to come together, and then, we have to stand together, and hold people accountable, for the things that aren’t being done, or the things that need to be done,” McCoy said. “It probably took something like this (the closing threat) to bring us together and make us realize, ‘Let’s come together, let’s start working for our children.’”