Benton Harbor schools get a new leader with 'a calling' to turn them around

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Andrae Townsel's backstory leading up to a career in public education is colorful: hip-hop YouTube star, one-time TED-talk speaker and unsuccessful candidate for Detroit mayor.

Today, Townsel's focus is singular and serious: turning around the Benton Harbor school district, which has struggled for years with declining enrollment, poor test scores and financial problems.

Benton Harbor schools new superintendent Dr. Andrae Townsel settles into his new role on March 12 in Benton Harbor, MI.

Hired as superintendent in February by the school board, Townsel arrived in the southwestern Michigan district at a crucial time: this month, school officials are expected to consider approving a turnaround plan that includes obtaining debt forgiveness from the state for outstanding emergency loans, creating a teacher residency program and reducing the school system's footprint from 11 buildings to three.

Townsel, 36, says he wants to get away from talk of shutting schools in the southwest Michigan district, as first suggested a year ago by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and focus on the future of the district, its students and teachers. Whitmer has since backed off on the idea of closing schools.

"It was a calling when I saw the situation they were in, to be closed down," Townsel said. "I said if they gave me the opportunity to keep that district open, I am going to throw my hat in to lead the district, and I did. The training I have and the education I received is suited for a district like Benton Harbor."

The Cass Technical High School graduate attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., on a football scholarship and earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees before launching a career in public education.

Townsel, a father of two children who maintains a residence in Metro Detroit but is still searching for a permanent home in the Benton Harbor area, said some people advised him not to take the post, saying it could destroy his career.

Benton Harbor schools' new superintendent Dr. Andrae Townsel takes a moment to celebrate a birthday with students India Smith, right, and  Rickysha Mayfield, left, and India's mom, Tanisha Smith at Benton Harbor High School on March 12 in Benton Harbor, MI.

"I trust in the training I received. I believe in the people of Benton Harbor. They were bold enough to fight for their district. I want to join the fight and be with them," Townsel said.

Townsel signed a four-year contract that pays him $168,000 annually. Before coming to Benton Harbor, he worked for two years as assistant superintendent of Wayne-Westland Community Schools, where he oversaw and supported more than 10,000 students in 20 schools.

His other posts include working as principal, vice president and dean in public schools in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.

Community members in Benton Harbor say Townsel is bringing the right mix of energy, talent and moxie the beleaguered district needs to launch a successful turnaround and attract families it has lost to other districts.

Pastor Carlton Lynch of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Benton Harbor said Townsel, with his degree and experience, could have applied anywhere to be superintendent.

"His age is prime. I think that’s the age that takes risks," Lynch said. "He is coming with fresh ideas and outlook. ... He is on fire. With his background, it all works together. And for a school district under fire, we need someone full of energy."

Establishing partnership with businesses in the community should be a priority, Lynch says. Whirlpool Corp. is based in Benton Harbor.

Also key to turning around the district, he says, is enlisting talented, qualified and certified teachers. The district has a high number of substitute teachers, many of them uncertified.

"That is really where it's at. You are never going to get kids to return until there is change. We need more certified teachers than subs," Lynch said.

The urban school district, whose 1,776 students are 93% black and 97% economically disadvantaged, has a history of staggeringly low academic achievement and nearly $18 million in long-term debt to address.

Its graduation rate from the 2018-19 school year was 41.5%, down from 64.7% the year before, while its dropout rate grew to 28.3% last school year from 10.4% the year before.

The district's academic and financial problems are being addressed by its turnaround plan, which Townsel will carry out with the board's support and approval.

Benton Harbor schools' new superintendent Dr. Andrae Townsel patrols the hallways betweeen classes at Benton Harbor High School on March 12 in Benton Harbor, MI.

Part of the plan calls for conducting a curriculum and instructional audit, hiring a curriculum specialist, finding evidence-based interventions like social-and-emotional learning and establishing a parent academy.

Townsel said there has been no talk of closing schools but the district continues to face declining enrollment and its turnaround plan suggests reducing the square footage in the districts and selling off unused buildings. It also has $13.3 million in long-term debt to address.

The coronavirus outbreak presents another challenge, Townsel said, but the district met the needs of students with the purchase of 935 Google Chromebooks with a grant to ensure learning could continue at home.

The district has also served 65,000 meals at 20 locations since the pandemic began, he said.

"Our district team was able to put together an excellent continuity of learning plan to get us to the end of the academic year which was successfully approved by the region and state," Townsel said.

Despite the challenges ahead, he said Benton Harbor could be a model for other struggling districts in the state.

"Me coming in, I truly feel I have inherited a gold mine," Townsel said. "This is an opportunity to share across the state best practices of turning around an under-performing district."

Joyce Parker, deputy state treasurer and a member of the 12-member community advisory committee that created the district's turnaround plan, said Townsel has brought useful insights to the committee and the plan.

"He has good ideas. He brings a fresh approach," Parker said. "He has a lot of energy and is committed. I am looking forward to working with him in terms of implementing the plan."

Parker said the state and district will soon hire a project manager to oversee the plan and work directly with Townsel to implement it. The Benton Harbor school board and the state education and treasury departments have until May 15 to approve the plan, Parker said.

School board president Joseph Taylor said he has supported Townsel from the start, especially after he saw his passion for educating young people.

"I saw not just youth, the heart for educating kids," said Taylor, who has spent 10 years on the board. "This man will be great for our district. He will take us to where we should have been years ago. He is putting students first and everything else second."

In the past decade, the Benton Harbor school district has seen several interim superintendents, state-appointed leaders and others try to turn the district around.

The district came under the eye of the state in 2014, when Gov. Rick Snyder agreed with the findings of a state financial review team that said a financial emergency existed in Benton Harbor.

The state and district entered into a consent agreement to address the financial emergency. In 2018, the state forced the school board to enter a cooperative agreement, under which the state education department said it would provide leadership, academic and financial stability to the district. The board agreed and gave up its power.

The school board resumed control of the district last June and fought Whimer's plan to close its high schools and send its students to neighboring, mostly white, districts.

Taylor said the district needs a leader with the fortitude to do what it takes to revive the school system.

"In the past, superintendents have caved to authority outside the districts," Taylor said. "It's OK to partner with MDE and Treasury. At the same time, we will have to maintain our leadership."

Last month, the district received $300,000 from an anonymous donor, Townsel said. He expects the money to be used for safety and security updates across the district.

"We have a lot of people who are reaching out to be part of the process. Our best days are ahead of it. The time is now."

Benton Harbor schools' new superintendent Dr. Andrae Townsel meets with his staff on March 12 in Benton Harbor, MI.

Parent Apollonia Williams said she likes that Townsel is quick to respond to her questions, concerns and ideas for the district, where her four children attend.

"I have gotten to talk to him. I like his energy. It’s a good vibe," Williams said. "I think it seems like he is embedded and his heart is in it and it matters."

The job of turning around the district is not Townsel's alone, Williams said.

"We need to step up and help him. The community. We can't just put it on his back. One person can't do it all," she said. "I am ready to put (the plan) into action. I feel good about what is coming up."