Dr. Andraé Townsel is the new man in charge of the Benton Harbor Area Schools. His mission is to turn around the long-struggling district both financially and academically but he knows it’s going to be a challenge.
"The very first thing to do is really build relationships with people, get trust. Getting trust is one of the hardest things to find and to establish that trust right off the bat,” Townsel said.
In only his second week as Benton Harbor Area Schools’ Superintendent, Townsel is trying to quickly get to know the students, parents, teachers, administrators and the community hoping to get them to buy in to his vision.
"I have to make very difficult or tough decisions down the line, potentially, but people have to trust the process and understand that the goal is to stabilize and revitalize the Benton Harbor Area Schools,” Townsel said.
Last Spring, the State of Michigan and Governor Gretchen Whitmer tried to shut down Benton Harbor High School due to persistently low academic achievement and some $18 million in outstanding debt but Townsel says they’re close to finding a solution.
"I do believe the plan that we are putting in place will stabilize us financially so we don't, first of all, have that structural deficit,” Townsel said.
Before joining Benton Harbor Schools this month, Townsel was an Assistant Superintendent in the Wayne-Westland Michigan Schools.
Before that, he helped turn around a troubled high school in Massachusetts and worked in Washington D.C. Public Schools as a principal. He then completed a School Turnaround Leadership Program at Harvard University after earning three degrees at Howard University, including a Doctorate in Education.
Born and raised in Michigan, Townsel graduated from Detroit Cass Tech High School.
"I walked in the same shoes as students here in Benton Harbor. Our young people are very talented academically, athletically and also in the arts and if we can put those three A’s together we can be a powerhouse school district,” Townsel said of the experience.
With a four year contract, Townsel believes he has plenty of time to make improvements and is already working with the district’s new Community Engagement Advisory Committee set up with the Michigan Departments of Education and Treasury.
Next month, the group will make recommendations to the school board on eliminating the budget deficit, improving test scores, and bringing more students back to the district.
"You live here you're supposed to go here and we're happy have to have you come back home,” Townsel said.
Since 2002, Benton Harbor has seen 62% of its more than 5,000 students leave the district. That adds up to more than 3,000 children moving away or using Schools of Choice to attend surrounding districts and charter schools.
Townsel believes if you rebuild the district that trend can be reversed.
"Starting from the ground up building that solid foundation, putting the right teaching and learning framework in place, really stabilizing our climate and culture to set the stage for learning and putting the best educators in front of our young people,” Townsel said. “I think once we have the opportunity to do that our young people will come home to Benton Harbor. Once a Tiger, always a Tiger!”