The Benton Harbor School District is planning on shutting down three more schools and shuffling hundreds of students in an effort to save money and improve grades.
The district is faced with dropping enrollment, dismal test scores, a rising $ 16 million deficit and the threat of a state takeover
Student enrollment is around 3,500 students, down from 5,000 several years ago.
In order to deal with the deficit and try to improve the curriculum, the district came up with a consolidation plan over a year ago. In this phase of the plan, Sorter Elementary School and Boynton Montessori would close. Their students and their specialty programs would be moved into larger existing middle school buildings. Fairplain Renassiance School which closed last month, and Hull Middle School, which closed in January 2011, would both reopen and all the middle schools in the district would be expanded into first through eighth grades.
Stump Preschool would also be shutdown and those kids moved to the Discovery Center on Britain Avenue. Under the plan all of the district's kindergarteners would be moved to the Creative Arts Building on Union Avenue.
Benton Harbor Superintendent Leonard Seawood says the district used to have over 5,000 students and have been spending money like they still have that high enrollment. Seawood says downsizing the district and the staff is crucial to getting out of debt. He also believes that moving students and their specialty programs, like creative arts and technical studies, into larger school buildings will improve student achievement.
"It is the right thing to do for the students’ growth and development. Absolutely the right thing to do," says Seawood.
But some parents and residents are concerned about all the changes. Nancy McClendon has been a bus driver in the school district for 17 years. She worries about how the consolidation into larger buildings will affect the younger students.
"That's too big of a stretch with the younger ones being with the older kids," McClendon worries.
With enrollment continuing to drop and test scores falling, McClendon also believes there's only so much the district can do.
"Parents have to get more involved with the schools and their students," she said.
And she believes if the district can't get out of debt and get back on track the state should take over.
Superintendent Seawood says he wants this round of closings to be the last closure the district has to undergo. The school board is also looking at laying off staff and outsourcing some services in order to save money. The board was supposed to vote on this phase of the consolidation plan tomorrow, but that meeting has been moved to next Tuesday. Board members wanted more time to review the details and get parent feedback.