BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor school board trustees are faced with opposing mandates.

State officials say the trustees must cut the district’s debt and raise student achievement on standardized test scores or the high school and possibly the entire district could be closed.

But like many struggling school districts, Benton Harbor has a large number of students in poverty. 

Studies show that children in poverty come to school with a lot of extra problems – chronic absenteeism, trauma and poorer health. In addition, they tend to come to school already behind academically when compared to their peers who are not in poverty.

The Michigan Department of Education rolled out the Partnership Model of school reform in the spring of 2017 to help struggling districts. The first recently released report looking at if the model is working found that schools with partnership agreements have a higher teacher-to-student ratio (28-to-1) than non-partnership schools (23-to-1).

William Pearson, director of the state program, said this is the opposite of what should be happening. He said teachers at high poverty schools need fewer students so they can help the students catch up academically while dealing with the problems associated with poverty. Instead, he said the Benton Harbor school district has to pack as many children as possible into each classroom to cut costs.

The problem came to light at a recent Benton Harbor school board meeting, where two teachers from International Academy at Hull spoke to school board trustees about the number of students in their classes.

They said they had relatively small classes of 20 to 22 students until Oct. 7, when classes were combined to maximize the number of students in each class.

“This is not the place to cut money,” said second-grade teacher Deborah Smith-Taylor. “Not only are our students being robbed of a good learning environment, the teachers are overwhelmed, and no matter how much we love our kids, we can’t teach under these circumstances. If we want to show growth on our test scores for the state, we’re being sabotaged. There will be very little growth under these circumstances.”

Fellow teacher Kathleen McCourt agrees.

“The vast majority of our students are below grade level in both reading and math, and to make progress with them, we need fewer students in the classroom, not more,” she said

Interim Superintendent Patricia Robinson said that as a former teacher, she understands their concerns. But she said she had no choice because of the district’s debt.

Benton Harbor school officials signed a partnership agreement with MDE in the spring of 2017, but that agreement was replaced by a cooperative agreement with the School Reform Officer in the summer of 2018. The cooperative agreement was meant to be for five years, but it was nullified a year later due to changes in the law, leaving the district in its current limbo. 

Pearson said the statewide teacher shortage is especially hitting schools in poverty districts hard, leaving them to fill vacant teaching positions with substitute teachers. In order to be successful, he said schools need to have certified teachers, a strategic plan and stable leadership.  

Poverty remains

Census data from 2017 shows that the border between the Benton Harbor and St. Joseph school districts is the eighth most economically segregated in the nation, with St. Joseph’s poverty rate 8 percent and Benton Harbor’s poverty rate 45 percent, according to Zahava Stadler, director of policy with EdBuild, a national nonprofit in Jersey City, N.J., that examines how the nation funds education.

Translated into money, the 2017 census shows that the median household income in Benton Harbor was $30,108, compared to $66,111 in St. Joseph – a $36,003 difference.

Just a few years ago, the border between the school districts was the 36th most economically segregated in the nation, according to 2014 Census data.

Stadler said the poverty rates in the two cities stayed basically the same between 2014 and 2017. The reason for the rise in rank nationally is because most communities have recovered from the 2008 Great Recession.

“On the whole, poverty rates of 40 percent are just not nearly as common as they used to be,” she said. “... The country overall has been coming out of the recession and Benton Harbor just doesn’t seem to be coming back as fast.”

Children who live in high-poverty school districts are more likely to “experience poor health, be exposed to violence and attend schools in decaying buildings,” according to the EdBuild website.

“The school district border ... divides a real community into haves and have nots,” Stadler said. “It has for a long time, and that translates into different opportunities for different kids.”

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