It is ranked one of the lowest performing high schools in Michigan when it comes to graduation rates and academic performance. And enrollment at the school has been declining which has only aggravated the district's budget problems. In the spring, many of Benton Harbor's High School teachers were laid off and this year the district is implementing a new way of teaching for 9th graders. But will this be enough to avoid a state takeover?
A few months ago the 3rd floor of Benton Harbor's High School looked like the rest of the school, a typical high school. But over the summer it was transformed. The 3rd floor received a million dollar makeover. That meant new floors with brightly colored carpet designs, freshly painted walls, new furniture and improved wireless access. Most importantly though, the makeover now means a new way of teaching.
"New Tech is problem based, project based," says Director Kristine Simons, "mathematics approaches it from problems and the other core classes approach it from projects."
That means students like 9th grader Travone Shannon spend a lot of times in groups and using the latest technology. When we observed his class Shannon and his classmates were reading a book about slavery. Soon they would get together in groups to do a research project and presentation. Their assignment is to act as if they have been hired by the publisher of the book and create an ad campaign for the book. It is a type of challenge they might encounter after high school in the real world.
In BioTech class this year students will be learning about DNA and will work in groups do research on GMO which includes genetically modified food. Then they will analyze and debate the pros and cons of GMO.
This is how every class works.
"It is the same curriculum (as other schools)," says Simons, "we are held to the same Michigan Merit Exam standards but we are approaching it differently."
The hope is, this new way of teaching will be enough to combat dropping enrollment and low graduation rates and academic performance.
"Because the students are doing the learning, they are not just sitting and receiving. They are active learners and that creates a sense among them that they are in charge. They have power and control over their learning," says Simons.
There are still some minor things that will need to be finished at the school. Giant TVs will soon be mounted on the walls and each student will be assigned a computer. But after the year is over the district hopes to have noticed measurable success.
"This will allow the students to excel academically, get more knowledge and score better on the state exams," says Simons.
It may take a while to get those results or at least until the state has measurable data to determine if New Tech at Benton Harbor is working. That is because the 9th graders won't take the Michigan Merit Exam until they are Juniors. But in the meantime, the district will be closely monitoring their progress.
Right now, only 9th graders are taking part in New Tech. Next year those students will move to 10th grade and continue with the New Tech philosophy and a new set of 9th graders will be brought in. In 4 years, the entire high school will be transformed into a New Tech school-- that includes a remodel of the building.