TRACK: Trustworthy, Responsible, Accountable, Community-Minded, Kind
These were the values chosen by an advisory group of Benson Unified School District employees to represent their educational community. All of these are good things. Trustworthy. Kind. Responsible. Any school district producing students who can be described in such terms is doing something right. Over and over again, though, they came back to the idea of “community”.
Benson was founded in 1880 when the Southern Pacific Railroad chose its location to cross the San Pedro River. The town is still connected to that history in many ways. The Benson Unified School District’s new slogan, for example, is, “On Track for Tomorrow.”
It’s easy to see how Benson’s emphasis on community came to be. This small Arizona community is full of historic buildings and houses. The town of 5,000 has remained roughly the same size for decades, avoiding both the booms and exoduses that have radically changed most Arizona towns.
The school district office, where ADE personnel sat down with Superintendent Micah Mortensen, is located next to the primary, middle, and high schools for the district. All are just blocks from downtown. All five of the governing board members are alumni of Benson High School.
This emphasis on community is clear in the culture of the schools. Benson Middle School has the Where Everyone Belongs (WEB) program, where newly-minted 8th graders mentor the incoming 6th graders. Benson High School students have a parallel program called the Link Crew who help freshmen through their first year.
The application of this philosophy doesn’t begin with students, though; it begins with the adults. Within the BUSD, Superintendent Mortensen promotes an environment of respect, on the principle that people who are happy with their jobs do their jobs well. By emphasizing good relationships between teachers, faculty, and education stakeholders, the BUSD can do more to help students excel.
Outreach to the rest of the community is also important. Principal Jansson of Benson Primary School regularly holds open events, where members of the community can stop by for coffee and tell her what’s on their mind. Superintendent Mortensen describes this as, “Very brave of her.”
This is because creating and maintaining a community isn’t all about accolades and bake sales. People get angry, people disagree over how students should be educated. Having the courage to be open to criticism is a virtue many find difficult to cultivate. Superintendent Mortensen refers to this as a willingness to listen.
“When people come in,” he explains, “I go into student mode. What can I learn from you?”
Being part of a small community means being answerable to your neighbors. It means being recognizable to people you pass on the street. This is a challenge urban school district administrators don’t face. It’s often a true asset, however.
One such experience that has stuck with him was an encounter with a father of a student, a veteran, who used the phrase, “Mission first, people always.” Not only did Mortensen listen to what the man was saying, but he committed it to memory and let those words impact his teaching philosophy. Mortensen ran into the father again, and was able to tell him that he had told his story and shared those words of wisdom with others.
Big changes may be on the horizon for Benson. A massive new “master-planned” community is scheduled to break ground soon. This new development would bulldoze 12,500 acres of vacant land, and wedge 28,000 new homes (along with commercial space) onto it.
While the community is divided on the development, there is no doubt that the increase from 5,000 to 70,000 residents would dramatically change Benson. BUSD, while very small, has been one of the best school districts in the state for several years running, and took home the top spot in 2013.* Maintaining that quality, community, and the values which uphold it while bringing in hundreds of new teachers, thousands of new students, and building many new schools would be a major challenge.
Superintendent Mortensen appears comfortable with whatever the future brings and plans to confront any challenges with the same focus that has sustained Benson for more than a century: community. As Superintendent Mortensen puts it, “We can’t control funding. Can’t control testing. But we can control how we treat one another.”
*Corrected date to 2013.