Berrien Springs: Leading the Way

Innovating outside of district boundaries

At a time when some education officials blame school performance on student background and a lack of funding, the success of Berrien Springs Public Schools is a welcome contrast.

More than 60 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The district participates in Schools-of-Choice and doesn't turn away alternative education students. In fact, Superintendent Jim Bermingham says that 75 percent of the district's alternative education students come from outside the district.

As reported in the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's newly released profile of Berrien Public Schools, the district saw an opportunity to expand alternative education when nearby districts were reducing or eliminating programs. Enrollment in the district's alternative education program has more than quadrupled since.

Unlike other school districts that heavily restrict which students can enroll through Schools of Choice, Berrien Springs opens its school doors widely: More than 300 Benton Harbor students used the program to attend Berrien schools this year. 

Berrien Springs officials also created an alternative education program to serve at-risk high school students in Battle Creek — more than 80 miles away. The Battle Creek program enrolls 275 students, and its first graduate was an 18-year-old mother who did homework at night after putting her child to bed, said Principal Bob Kubiack.

Bermingham said Berrien Springs has entered into partnership agreements with five districts to operate virtual alternative schools. He said he anticipates enrolling 200 more at-risk students in those partnership schools. 

The district's innovation and service to at-risk students has paid off. Enrollment has steadily increased during the past five years, from about 1,830 students to 2,260 — a 23 percent increase. The district's fund balance has grown from 4 percent to more than 20 percent.

Berrien Springs is rethinking the notion of districts bound by lines on a map, well ahead of lagging state policy.

Bermingham said the desire to develop the district's Battle Creek program grew out of the "desire we have to make a difference, more than just in Berrien Springs."

"We have to change the concept of education with these [geographical] boundaries of responsibility," he said.