Tom Benson

Tom Benson for webTom Benson knows how powerful a child’s dreams can be. As a sixth grader, he watched a film about a teenager’s solo sailing trip around the world—and immediately decided that he too would someday sail the world’s waterways.

Benson, who’s now an accomplished sailor as well as principal of the K-4 Pilot Knob STEM Magnet Elementary School in Eagan, Minn., points to his youthful experience to show the impact aspiration can have on a child. It’s also the reason Benson believes Junior Achievement should be part of every classroom in the country.

JA offers a number of programs targeted to elementary school students, all of which stress JA’s three primary goals: financial literacy, college and career readiness and the important role that entrepreneurship and business formation have in our economy.

Benson first became an unabashed fan of JA while working as principal of Oak Grove Elementary School in Bloomington, Minn.

“That was my first experience with JA, about nine years ago,” he says. “I was so impressed with the program. Our school was what we called a ‘100-percent’ school, in that every classroom was involved.”

Benson, whose lanky, athletic build speaks to another of his passions, competing in triathalons, eventually moved on from Oak Grove to serve as principal of a school in California. He returned to his native Minnesota in 2007 to accept the job at Pilot Knob.

Benson says at the time, Independent School District 197, which includes Pilot Knob, was not involved with JA but he quickly became an ardent cheerleader for the program.

Today, both Benson’s school and four other elementary schools in the district have JA programs in place geared to their students’ respective ages. And Benson continues to be a vocal booster of JA, noting that he continually spreads his enthusiasm about the program to all of his other “principal friends.”

From Benson’s perspective, JA supplies a much-needed facet to his curriculum, particularly given the fact that his school is made up of students often considered to be at-risk for not graduating or of not pursuing higher education after graduation.

“We’re in Eagan and Eagan has a reputation as an [affluent] suburb,” Benson says. “But for us, 40 percent of our students are on free or reduced [price lunches], which means they are at or below the poverty line. And 50 percent of our students are students of color who come from places like India, Nepal, Somalia and Nigeria. We’re 20 percent African-American, 18 percent Latino and 17 percent Asian.”

In addition to being ethnically diverse, Benson says that Pilot Knob has a student body with a high percentage of single-parent homes, which can correlate to increased economic distress and other related problems. From that standpoint, Benson says that the volunteers who present the JA programs offer students a powerful incentive simply by being available and present in their lives.

“The role model piece from JA is so, so important, especially for a school like mine,” Benson says emphatically. “A lot of our kids don’t come from the traditional type of family life that I had, where Mom or Dad works outside of the home. I think when some of our kids go home, they don’t necessarily see someone coming in the door [from a job] at night or hear, ‘How was your day at work?’ They may have never seen someone after a so-called traditional workday, and that’s sad.

“I like the whole JA program, but I especially like … our kids to see someone come in and say, ‘I went to college’ and then share with the kids how that allowed them to go on to work for their respective companies. It lets the kids think, ‘Wow, I could do that!’ Students need to see that staying in school and working hard and doing a good job can lead to careers that are really rewarding. And they see that working is rewarding, and that it’s good for them and their family and society.”

Benson also says that as a STEM school—which focuses its coursework in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—he particularly values the kind of interactive learning that the JA elementary school programs provide.

“A lot of our focus is teaching kids through the lens of those STEM subjects,” Benson says. “We do quite a bit of hands-on teaching and I see a really nice tie-in there with JA. The JA curriculum is also very hands-on, and it’s really well done and well created. For instance, in second grade, the JA volunteers talk about things like production, using doughnuts as an example. In kindergarten, they talk about subjects like community and people’s roles in their community.”

Benson, whose wife Sandy is also a first-grade teacher, says that adding JA to an elementary school curriculum provides benefits outside the scope of what often over-worked teachers themselves can provide.

“What’s so good for our students about JA is that since we [as educators] have so much on our plate right now—teaching reading, writing, math, science, health, all these things—that often the other topics [that JA brings] are items that our kids don’t get as robust an experience with. It’s experiential, it’s hands-on, it’s problem solving and it’s the scientific process of inquiry, where you ask questions. We’re trying to get kids to be inquisitive.”

Benson is such an advocate of experiential learning that Pilot Knob has installed a large storage shed and 16 raised garden beds behind the school. The plots are designed so that every student “gets to plant something—and gets to eat something,” he says. The gardens also give students an up-close, hands-on spot in which to observe how plants grow, although Benson chuckles when he admits he still does the majority of the weeding.

Asked what he would tell others about JA—both educators as well as prospective corporate volunteers—Benson is certain that the program provides a win-win situation for everyone that gets involved.

“I’m so proud of the JA program because of how everyone involved makes it better for our kids,” he says. “And I think the volunteers benefit too because they get an opportunity to come into the classroom and really see what our schools are like.”