Martin's grant helps bring music to once-failing Benton Harbor school

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BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WNDU) “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” the musician sang to the students as they crowded around him in the classroom at Benton Harbor’s Martin Luther King STEAM Academy. “You make me happy, when skies are gray.”

But this wasn’t music class, and the guitarist was no music teacher.

It was a spontaneous sing-along with the school principal, Dr. David VanDyke. It’s just one of his charms that’s winning back the hearts and minds of students and families of this embattled district.

The pressure's on in Benton Harbor. Earlier this year, three schools were threatened with closure: Dream Academy, International Academy at Hull and VanDyke’s Martin Luther King STEAM Academy.

There are signs of hope. This week it was announced that the three schools will stay open thanks to a partnership agreement with the state. The Martin Luther King STEAM Academy picked up Martin's Super Markets' One School at a Time grant for $1,000 to help with their instruction. VanDyke applied for the grant.

“I feel called to be here,” admitted VanDyke. “I really do. I love these kids.”

VanDyke is in his first year as principal. He took the job knowing about the school’s dubious distinction.

At one time, close to one hundred percent of the kids were failing Michigan’s standardized test. The school was put on notice.

“It was slated to close,” said VanDyke. “We had the SRO, the State Reform Office, send parents a letter that it was slated to close, but we came up with an agreement that we show adequate yearly progress.”

The changes were swift and wide sweeping.

New staff. New rules. It's no longer kindergarten through 8th grade. It’s now three through five, and every student is held accountable.

There are data boards in every classroom showing their progress. The student’s identification numbers are posted in the areas that reflect their proficiency. Slowly, but surely, those numbers are moving in the right direction.

“Now if you walk into every classroom, you'll see our scores are projecting to rise across the board,” said VanDyke. “I'm actually really excited about showing how well we're going to do on the M-STEP. We’ve done nothing but improve.”

The stakes are high and the kids know it.

“Kids are trying harder since they heard that the school's going to be closed down,” said Josiah King, a 5th grader. “The teacher said I'm doing good on my test so I can help the school not be closed.”

It's a neighborhood school that means a lot to King’s family. “This is the school that represents us,” said King. “My mom went to school (here).”

“We're trying to work hard so the school can stay open,” offered 4th grader Dezmond Jennings. He admits he was once a kid who got suspended. Now he's trying harder.

“If you make mistakes and you fix them, it'll be all right,” said Jennings. “Most of the time, my teacher, I make mistakes and then she just give me another chance. And when she give me another chance I try to make it good.”

“They need people to listen to them,” suggested paraprofessional Patricia Duff-Moore. She's worked in Benton Harbor area schools for 22 years.

“They have every day struggles. Struggles that we don't know about,” said Duff-Moore. “If you just listen, they'll tell you.”

She says positive, consistent direction is helping these kids succeed. She gives Dr. VanDyke a lot of the credit.

“I've had good bosses in the past, but he's the one that sticks out,” admitted Duff-Moore. “He loves the children.”

VanDyke loves singing with them too. This principal moonlights as a musician and uses his favorite pastime to help move the school in a new direction. He even writes songs that can help the kids learn. His favorite is all about vowels.

The Martin's One School at a Time grant money will go toward an acoustic electric guitar that stays at the school.

“A whole bunch of kids don't have success on standardized tests with math and language arts,” explained VanDyke. “But they really succeed in music or they really succeed in the arts, and I think this grant will help us make a step toward helping them have success.”

The kids say music helps.

“In music you can experience things,” offered Jennings. “You can talk out your problems. You can experience things you don't know.”

“If you have a problem, it helps you soothe your problem,” said King. “And it calms you down.”

“These kids need to feel safe and secure here and I'm not sure they were getting that but they seem to be getting it now,” VanDyke said with confidence.

Together, they’re saving their school.

The partnership agreement contains specific interventions and support services.

While there are three Benton Harbor schools under the microscope by the state, the programs and services outlined in the plan will be implemented district-wide. NewsCenter 16 will continue to follow the school’s progress and keep you posted.

If you'd like to nominate your school for a One School at a Time grant, just fill out an application online at michianaschools.com.

The winning school gets $1,000 from Martin’s Super Markets, and a new winner is picked each month during the school year.