BENTON HARBOR — Hollywood actor and Benton Harbor native Ernie Hudson was in town Sunday to discuss the play “Exit Strategy, “ which is about a fictitious Chicago high school facing closure at the end of the school year. 

What can be done to make sure Benton Harbor High School doesn’t share the same fate? That was explored by a Q&A panel that spoke to more than 50 audience members after Sunday’s 3 p.m. performance.

Hudson said a lot has changed since he graduated from the high school in 1964. 

“We know that (the high school) can’t survive unless we personally, individually, take an interest,” he said. “If it’s not that important to us, it’s just not going to last.”

Hudson is the associate artistic producer of the play that was presented by the Lake Michigan College Visual & Performing Arts Department, working with the cast via video chat. The play was written by Ike Holter shortly after 49 schools were closed in Chicago in 2013.

The play will be performed, again, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. 

The show is being staged at The GhostLight Theatre, 101 Hinkley St., Benton Harbor, due to construction at The Mendel Center. To purchase tickets, visit ghostlightbh.com or call 252-5222.

Hudson said it was wonderful to be part of the production that explores a situation that’s actually happening in Benton Harbor.

“It gives us an opportunity to focus in a different way and to realize the importance of us,” he said.

In May, state officials tried to force Benton Harbor school board trustees to agree to close the high school at the end of the 2019-20 school year, citing high debt and low student achievement as the reason.

Benton Harbor Area Schools Interim Superintendent Patricia Robinson said that since then, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has directed the state Treasury Department to create a community advisory engagement committee.

“This committee is tasked with developing a ... comprehensive plan, a strategic plan, that will lay out the next couple of years for the district,” she said. “... We are probably $15 million in debt. That continues to increase as our enrollment continues to decrease. We have buildings that have not been kept up because of lack of funding. And this committee will be tasked to complete a plan on how we’re going decrease the deficit, increase enrollment and also improve our buildings.”

She said the plan needs to be developed this year and will be implemented next year.

One big challenge is staffing.

“We have a huge teacher turnover right now. We also have a problem finding qualified staff,” she said. “That’s not just in Benton Harbor Area Schools. That’s across Michigan. People are just not going into education anymore. It’s quite comprehensive and it’s complicated to be a teacher.”

She said she feels very supported by the state Department of Education and Department of Treasury.

“They are working along with us, trying to help us figure this out,” she said. “There’s no more separating us from them. We’re all in this together because ... all of these departments have impacted where we are at this point.”

Robinson said the district also needs help from the health care community. She said parents need to be taught how to raise their children so they are ready to learn when they come to school.  

She said many first- through third-grade students come to school very angry.

“We’re spending 45 minutes with one student trying to get a student to calm down,” she said. “One teacher, a classroom teacher cannot spend that much time.”

She said the students also come to school with depression.

“They’ve experienced so many different things in their lives,” she said. “... Why would they want to learn? So we first have to love on them and our teachers are stretched thin.”

Panelists also talked about how Benton Harbor’s schools are crumbling while only five minutes away is a school district with beautiful buildings.

Hudson said the separation has been there ever since he attended school.

He said he was one of the first group of students to integrate the Benton Harbor school system.

“But even though we were going to the same school, we were still segregated,” he said. “They had different programs. It was a deliberate attempt to make sure that we weren’t in a position to compete.”

Charmae Sanders, who works with Lake Michigan College students from Benton Harbor, said the students notice the difference.

“Yes, everybody wants the best for their kids. But you should not want the best for your kid at the expense of another,” she said. 

Bob Harrison, former LMC president and now a Berrien County commissioner, said the reality is that the Benton Harbor school district is in severe distress.

“The system that manages public education in the state of Michigan will do it no favors,” he said. “There will not be a lifeline, a safety net, anything to help the district. We are at this point, we collectively are at this point through a number of reasons.”

And he said it’s going to take more than a superintendent to make the required changes.

“I’ve been on so many superintendent advisory groups in Benton Harbor,” he said. “We’ve talk about the same issues for the last 20 years. They really have not changed. It’s going to take more than the school board. It’s going to take parents, community members, actually getting involved in what the district does. And in my perspective, that has not happened. As much as everybody would like to say that it has, it really has not. Not in an effective way. That’s part of the psychology that needs to change here if the district is going to be able to survive.” 

Other panel members included Sandy Feldman, author of “Building Bridges Across the Racial Divide”; Reedell Holmes, principal of Benton Harbor High School; and Marcus Robinson of Collaboration Theatre in Chicago. 

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