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Benton Harbor Area Schools awaiting SRO audit before decision on school closures

outside of Benton Harbor High School
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Benton Harbor High School

Administrators at Benton Harbor Area Schools are preparing for an audit from the Michigan School Reform Office to see if three of the district’s five schools will be closed.

Benton Harbor Area Schools had three buildings on the School Reform Office’s recently published list of 38 low-performing schools that could be closed this summer due to poor standardized test scores.

Superintendent Shelly Walker will make the case to state school reform officers that she inherited a troubled district when she was hired in February, 2016. She believes the district has reached a turning point, and doesn’t deserve to be judged according to data from previous years’ test scores.

“That data is what Benton Harbor was,” Walker said. “And the data we’ll see moving forward represents the Benton Harbor we are today, and I have lots of examples, evidence and data to show how we are monitoring and ensuring fidelity of instruction.”

For nearly three hours, Walker and the district’s board talked with parents and community members at a special school board meeting and town hall Wednesday night at the Benton Harbor High School.

The district had five schools that scored in the bottom five percent of all Michigan Schools on standardized tests in 2016. According Walker, the state granted Benton Harbor High School until 2018 to improve the number of proficient students, or face closure.

Still, Dream Academy, International Academy at Hull, and STEAM Academy at MLK could all be shuttered in June.

Arts & Communications Academy at Fair Plain was placed on the list of the lowest achieving schools for the first time this year, as well.

The School reform office allows schools at-risk for being closed to remain open, if it’s determined that closing the school would result in an economic hardship by forcing students and parents to travel further to attend school. But, Walker is doubtful that fallback could save schools in Benton Harbor.

“I don’t think we can rely on the hardship clause,” Walker said. “We have schools that are closer to us, we have schools that participate in school of choice. I’m not going to rely on that.

I am optimistically going to rely on what we’ve been accomplishing this year, which stands us apart from what we have done (in years past).”

Walker said she expects school reform officers to visit the district sometime in February, but has no certain date. Reform officers will visit the school before making a final determination whether to shutter the three schools in question.

As part of her case, Walker is relying on “Points of Pride” which she emphasizes as the building blocks for more significant and positive changes to student achievement in the future. 

Since her appointment as superintendent, Walker has also instituted a new curriculum for the district and is beginning to focus on teacher training.

“I think that is going to be a really tremendously strong platform to appeal to the SRO that they need to allow us to finish the work that we have begun,” Walker said. 

A press-release from the School Reform Office says a decision on which schools will be closed could come by mid-march, after examining the specific details of each failing school.

If the three failing Benton Harbor Schools are closed, the district will serve only grades six through twelve.

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