There's been a whole lot of shaking going on in Benton Harbor. The city is working to turn its image from an eyesore, into a place you'd want to visit, just like its sister city, St. Joe.
The new Harbor Shores area is thriving. The school district is also working to repair years of damage that came from middle class flight and poverty, to make the Benton Harbor schools competitive again.
I sat down for a conversation with the new Superintendent of Benton Harbor Schools who believes he has the tools and support to turn the schools around.
“I grew up here in Benton Harbor, so this is actually coming home for me, this is my alma mater,” said Dr. Leonard Seawood.
New Superintenent Dr. Seawood has a vested interest in making sure the kids walking the halls in Benton Harbor today know they can succeed, because the man who is now the school's top dog has been there, done that.
Dr. Seawood said, “I tell these students, I sat where you are sitting right now, and I know that in your mind you may not be thinking that you are college material and you might be told [that] by your teachers or your counselors, but I tell you that is not the truth because I was told the same thing.”
Facing a $7 million deficit and previous school board that seemed to hold more closed than open meetings, and without a full board, Dr. Seawood formed a team to transform Benton Harbor schools, including a partnership with both his alma mater, Western Michigan and Cambridge Universities.
“We have a team of professors from the university who are here helping us with our curriculum and instruction, working with our middle school, because if you look at where we are losing students we are literally losing them out of our middle school,” Dr. Seawood said.
Benton Harbor schools are also getting community support from companies like Whirlpool and Lakeland Health Care. The district, which once had nine thousand students and now has about thirty-five hundred, is also working with a company to "right size" the corporation.
Coming from the college level, Dr. Seawood says he's a realist and came onto the job with eyes wide open.
“Many of these experts who we are employing in and out of district are saying, Dr. Seawood you have one of the most fixable systems we've ever worked in,” he said.
By "right sizing" enrollment, cutting their deficit, and graduating students, with some new school board members he says are "on board."
“When you look at the urgency and the seriousness of this effort now and how we've all come together on one accord and we have vowed to transparency,” he said.
With no more behind closed door meetings, expert help with curriculum and budget help, Seawood says Benton Harbor schools can be turned around.
“So it is possible. We're a small district. We have one high school, two middle schools and seven elementary schools. We can turn this around,” Dr. Seawood said.
“Even promising graduates will get more than a high school degree. When students graduate from this district they are going to come out with a two year Associate Degree or with enough credit, and within ten years it's even possible to come out with Baccalaureate Degrees.
He's making a personal pledge as one who has "been there."
“You believe in yourself and I pledge to you that all of our kids, those that are willing, will put forth that effort and we can bring parents to the table as educational partners in the whole process, we will prepare our kids to be college ready and we will make a way for them to go to college. But it can happen. It's happening all over the country. There is no reason it couldn't happen here,” he said.
Dr. Seawood has his sights set high for Benton Harbor students.
He wants Benton Harbor schools to become a "world class learning environment."
He also credits former superintendent, Dr. Carol Schmidt for doing a lot of positive things for the school corporation.
To see Part One of Maureen's conversation with Dr. Seawood Click Here.