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Opinion: Put Benton Harbor students first

Vickie Markavitch

As a former Benton Harbor educator and senior consultant working on school turnaround for Benton Harbor Area Schools, I spent every day focused on making sure students could get on a path to a great post-secondary education.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses residents of Benton Harbor at a special community meeting on June 5  to discuss the state's proposal to close the high school.

As educators, we have a responsibility to ensure every child, no matter the community in which they live, can be successful here in Michigan. We have a duty to put students first and monitor and use data around student learning in our districts to reach our goals.

For years now, the data in Benton Harbor has shown us that far too many students have fallen behind and resources haven’t been responsibly allocated to ensure their success. We know this because in 2018 only three percent of third graders could read at grade level, and fewer than three 11th graders were deemed college ready in the past five years. And right now, 64 percent of K-12 students currently living in the boundaries of Benton Harbor Area Schools are enrolled elsewhere because parents know that their kids are more likely to find success outside of the district. We need a real plan to turn around the Benton Harbor Area school district to refocus on student learning and put our kids first.

Students and educators can’t thrive in an environment where they don’t have the support they need. Right now, the majority of teachers in Benton Harbor Public Schools are long-term substitutes, because teachers don’t want to move to a place where they know they won’t have the resources and tools they need to educate our kids. As a former educator, I know how difficult it is to work in one of those environments. That’s why when we work to turn around the district, we need to make sure Benton Harbor teachers have the support they need to build a curriculum that focuses on putting our students on a path to success.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the local school board, and Benton Harbor residents can all agree that the status quo is not sustainable in the district. We need leaders to come together and agree on a plan that puts students first by setting real, clear benchmarks for the district to meet. Whitmer has started an important dialogue and partnership with the school board in order to reach this goal. This is an opportunity to turn around a district that our state government has consistently neglected and build a stable leadership system that knows how to implement effective teaching and learning practices and sets high expectations for students.

I love Benton Harbor. I spent part of my career there and dedicated my time and greatest efforts to helping the district get back on it’s feet.

The last thing I want to see is a complete dissolution of Benton Harbor Area Schools, but I know that’s what’s coming if we can’t agree on this proposal to improve outcomes for students. Whitmer is making a tough choice because it’s the right thing to do, and I know firsthand that the students, parents and educators in Benton Harbor are tough enough and resilient enough to turn this into a great opportunity that helps everyone get ahead.

Vickie Markavitch is former Oakland County Schools superintendent and a former Benton Harbor teacher.