Time March 2–9, 2020
Traci BurTon is 25 years old, BuT could easily pass
for one of the seniors at Benton Harbor High School. Stand-
ing by the trophy case in the lobby, she’s small and youthful,
dressed casually, like many of the students walking through
the metal detector toward lockers painted with black and
orange tiger paws, symbols of the school mascot. People
here say they have Tiger Pride.
Generations of Burton’s family have lived in Benton
Harbor, a city of 10,000 on the shores of Lake Michigan.
She went to a performing-arts-focused elementary school
there and got a great education. But when the time came
for middle and high school, she left for a neighboring dis-
trict because everyone told her that would be better. Then
she went to college, graduated and came home, taking a job
teaching at a local elementary school.
She was shocked by the change. The kind of education
she received at the performing-arts school, which has since
closed, was gone. The teaching staff at her new school was a
revolving door of substitutes, and her third-grade students
couldn’t read. “I took the decline very personally,” she says.
“I knew I had to do something bigger to help.”
Once a thriving center of industry, Benton Harbor’s
economy has collapsed. The high school building is a cen-
tury old, worn in places, with an empty feeling inside. The
streets around it are filled with large homes—some well-
kept, others crumbling—abandoned businesses and va-
cant lots. In the public schools, test scores are so low and
finances so dire that last year Michigan Governor Gretchen
Whitmer proposed shutting down the high school and send-
ing all the students to nearby districts and charter schools.
Parts of Main Street look less boarded up than bombed out.
But drive another block, past the Family Dollar and
Tim’s Bail Bonds (sTuck in Jail? We can Bail!), and
something unusual happens. Directly across the street,
there’s a gleaming corporate complex. Another hundred
yards and you’re on a bridge with a marina full of fancy
yachts to the left and a Jack Nicklaus Design champion-
ship golf course to the right. Then you’re across the river, in
downtown St. Joseph, Mich., on streets full of restaurants,
jewelry stores and pet boutiques. The two neighborhoods
are a half-mile away from each other, and a universe apart.
DISTRICT BORDERS THREATEN EDUCATION, AND
THESE KIDS ARE FIGHTING TO SAVE THEIR SCHOOL
BY KEVIN CAREY / BENTON HARBOR, MICH.
Feb. 10, believe
High School is