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Benton Harbor student population down 45% in a decade, schools work to reverse decline

outside of Benton Harbor High School
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Benton Harbors' school board voted to close a junior high school. 7th and 8th graders will head to Benton Harbor High School. Seawood said he's taken precautions to seperate the age groups within the school.

Benton Harbor Area Schools is already campaigning to get students enrolled in the fall. That’s because the district hopes to dig out of a major budget deficit by attracting more students.

Benton Harbor schools narrowly avoided a state appointed emergency manager a couple of years ago.

Superintendent Leonard Seawood says since then, they’ve balanced the budget for two years in a row.

“That has come with a large sacrifice,” Seawood said, “I mean we have teachers who haven’t had raises in many, many years. We have administrators who are the same and so it really has been a community effort in decreasing the deficit.

Seawood says they’ve tried to find ways to attract new students. The district opened up a school that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math, there's a new Montessori program and it’s got the Benton Harbor Promise; which offers two years of free college tuition for high school graduates.

The district’s general fund deficit stands at nearly $14 million, down from $16 million last year. It’s revenues totaled nearly $32 million in the 2012-2013 school year.

“The majority of our plan is just that; how do we attract students back and how do we continue to contain our costs,” Seawood said.

But it’ll be a challenge. Benton Harbor enrolled 2,803 students last fall, continuing the steady decline in enrollment from 5,127 in the 2002-2003 school year. That’s a big deal. The more students who show up in the fall, the more money the state will provide a district.

Seawood says many students have left BHAS to go to new charter schools or other public school districts through the schools of choice program. He also blames general population decline in the city. The number of people living in Benton Harbor has fallen from 11,082 in 2002 to 10,047 in 2011 according to US Census figures.

“It’s wonderful that our community has been patient with us and we’re setting up the stage where we’re going to have a very high performing district but you know we can only be as strong as this community wants us to be,” Seawood said.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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