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Adding 3Ts to 3Rs

Forest Edge principal reviews changes in education in his almost three decades of experience.

Frank Bensinger, new principal at Forest Edge Elementary School, won’t hesitate to admit that Xerox machines run his life. He is convinced that the three R's just don’t cut it anymore and he knows that in today’s world, a teacher cannot afford to be "John Wayne."

At the moment, Bensinger’s school is in disarray. The lack of ceiling tiles and the exposure of pipes are telltale signs of renovation.

“We’ll get all this mess cleared by the start of school,” he said, “especially anything that some kid could grab and pull down. They love to do that.”

“He’s so child centered, and so the kids feel so close to him,” said Roberta Sherman, Forest Edge’s vice-principal. “He makes it so that children know they are safe with him and that if they need anything, they can go to him.”

Bensinger is proud of his students. “We have an amazingly diverse community," he said. Flags adorn the entire cafeteria ceiling and bathrooms are marked by half-a-dozen languages.

“Diversity is the real world,” said Bensinger, “my students are getting used to the real world.”

The former teacher turned administrator came to the Fairfax County school system in 1985 from Wilmington, Del. after working there for almost 10 years. He received his master's degree in educational administration from the University of Delaware. It was there that he met wife and fellow Fairfax County principal at Woodburn Elementary, Molly Bensinger-Lacy.

COMING TO FAIRFAX County in 1985 to teach elementary school, Bensinger recalls that he was impressed with teachers’ level of motivation.

"It is important to know that teachers live and die by their Xerox machines," he joked. "In Delaware I could get to work a little early and use the machine immediately. But, when I started working in Fairfax, even if I got in an hour early, there would be five people in line. Compared to Delaware," said Bensinger, "Fairfax teachers are highly motivated and passionate about their jobs."

It’s these traits that Bensinger looks for now that he’s hiring the staff. “I look for those teachers who have that passion and who try to discover what their kids know.”

Sherman can see this in her principal’s methods. “He meets once a month with each grade," she said, "without teachers, just to see what is going on with the kids. The result is a closer relationship with his students.”

Those who have worked with Bensinger praise him. Gina Ross, Bensinger’s principal for two years in Great Falls, has written a letter of recommendation in support of Bensinger’s recent nomination for Principal of the Year. Bensinger was nominated by the PTA.

“It is so clear that he only has one target,” Ross said. “He is focused on the kids, all the time.”

“GOOD TEACHERS have some sort of internal assessment,” Bensinger said, describing the traits of some of his more successful staff members. “They also have to plan much better than they used to, further down the road, and even form complex contingency plans,” he said.

“Teachers can’t just put in six hours-a-day anymore,” he said. “You’ll see my teachers in the hall throughout the summer.”

Since Bensinger's emigration from Delaware two decades ago, technology has affected teachers' isolation in the classroom. What Bensinger calls the old "John Wayne, do-it-yourself” style of teaching has become obsolete, and has been replaced with a profession that demands a substantial amount of communication with others.

"Contact between parents and teachers used to be limited to report cards," said Bensinger. "Now parents can easily use voice-mail or e-mail to contact teachers and ask questions about their children. Parents want to be involved."

The arrival of cell phones has also changed the educational landscape as well. "Before Sept. 11, anyone who brought a cell phone to school would have been considered a drug dealer," Now it is perfectly fine for children to bring their phones to school. It has become an important parental tool for communication.

"The working class today is smaller than ever before. Not only is it a federal mandate to not leave a child behind, we just can't afford to leave anyone behind, it wouldn't be fair. We have to prepare these children for an executive world,” he said.

“Today, there is more data available for kids than ever,” he continued. “We need to teach children how to judge this data so they can know which to trust, and which to question.”

Bensinger compared the needs of children today with those of children two decades ago. "Most school lessons have been, and still are based on the three Rs," said Bensinger. "Those letters aren't enough to prepare children today. So we also try to teach the three Ts: thinking, teaming and technology. Because there is so much learning going on outside of the classroom, we have to spend more time helping children decipher what is true and what is not true.”

Bensinger's devotion to his children is obvious to his audience.

“You can tell that he cares for the children, and that he really forms a bond with them. They are his number one priority,” said Sherman.