A Conversation with Benton Harbor Superintendent, Dr. Leonard Seawood

There's been a mountain of controversy in Benton Harbor over the last decade, from poverty and crime to bad cops.

Most recently, a school board scandal was rife with secrecy and closed-door meetings. Tuesday night, the assistant superintendent tendered her resignation. Now, there's a new superintendent in town. One who is tired of the way Benton Harbor is portrayed.

Leonard Seawood says good things are happening to the city in terms of development and he wants to get rid of the black eye overshadowing the schools.

“I can remember when I graduated from Benton Harbor High School,” said Seawood. “And I was told that I wasn't college material.”

That's right, the man recently hired to lead Benton Harbor schools back to success was told to join the military. Seawood says it would have been an admirable option, but he wanted to go to college.

He spent a summer proving himself at Western Michigan.

“It wasn't an easy role for me,” he remembered. “But I did it. I learned how to study. I got in gear and I got my bachelor's degree.”

Then Seawood got his master's and doctorate and spent nine years operating many of Western Michigan’s extended campuses.

“For the last year, I have been employed at the University of Arkansas as part of their administrative staff. My position was dean of academic outreach.”

He believes his previous college work has prepared him well to face Benton Harbor's academic challenges in terms of graduation rates and getting kids college bound.

“It's no secret that we have some budgetary issues. We are seven million dollars in deficit and we are under a mandate to clear up the deficit," he said. “In fact, we need to right size our district, at one time a district of about 9 or 10 thousand students, we're less than half that now.”

And in a corporation recently racked by a feuding school board and the early firing of its superintendent, Seawood says he's formed a new partnership team, including local businesses and experts from Western Michigan and Cambridge University.

“We're looking at a whole accountability issue from top to bottom,” he said. “That is a tremendous piece in terms of our transformation too. They have literally hit the ground here this past week.”

They are also working with a national agency that has worked with Chicago and Boston schools. The agency will help Benton Harbor keep track of spending on transportation, food service, staffing, and athletics.

Seawood went as far as saying he has assembled the most dynamic transformation team in the country. Plus, experts have already chimed in, saying Benton Harbor schools are fixable.

Seawood says even the school board, which has some new members but was a source of frustration in the past, is fully on board.

“We're not going to start all over at any place,” he said. “But we're going to literally recalibrate our district. We're going to move collectively together.”

Seawood and his board were together at a recent back-to-school bash, greeting parents and students. They understand the urgency for change.

Just as Harbor Shores and downtown development are transforming Benton Harbor to the booming town it once was, Seawood says the schools are on their way back.

“I do know that we won't do it in a year, but we will see some progress within a year and within three to five years you're going to see some amazing things in this district.”

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