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Promoting Inclusiveness

Forest Edge Principal Frank Bensinger retiring after 21 years.

Frank Bensinger has witnessed and been part of a lot of changes in public school education in his 21-year tenure as principal of Forest Edge Elementary School in Reston: more frequent assessment testing and associated paperwork; greater diversity among students and families; more attention to and demands from students with special needs, to name a few. But one constant, and the thing that has "kept me going all these years," says Bensinger, is simple: "The kids," he says, "are still the kids."

Bensinger will be leaving Forest Edge in June after a three decades-long career in education, beginning as an elementary school teacher in Wilmington, Del., continuing with stints as a computer resource specialist and an assistant principal in several local schools, and concluding with the principal position he has occupied at Forest Edge since 1990.

It has been a fitting and fulfilling career for Bensinger. "I can’t imagine another job that would have given me this kind of chance to make a difference," he says. "Making a difference with kids and their families; what better legacy can a person have? I’ll always look back on that and be really proud."

But Bensinger’s leadership of Forest Edge Elementary has demanded more than just a love for children. Bensinger earned a "technology focus" designation for the school several years ago as he recognized the need for integrating technology into the classroom. As a result, the school is equipped with "SmartBoard" interactive whiteboards in every classroom, a state of the art technology resource center, Internet access and computers in every teaching area.

And Forest Edge’s population is a diverse one: the school has more than 100 Arabic families and, excluding the roughly 250 "Advanced Academic" program students who attend Forest Edge from other communities, roughly 53 percent of its population is on free and reduced lunches. That cultural and academic diversity presents unique challenges. "Reston was designed to include everyone," Bensinger explains. "So schools like Forest Edge have big time socioeconomic and academic diversity. We have kindergarteners who have been in preschool since they were two years old, and kids who are entering school for the first time as first graders. That’s a huge range."

BENSINGER has brought energy and creativity to challenges like those. About five years ago, for example, he implemented evening classes for non-English speaking parents to better integrate them into the Forest Edge community. "We teach them ‘schoolese,’" he says, "how to maneuver around Fairfax County, how to understand what terms like ‘back to school night’ mean. We want them to feel part of this school as much as any other family, and I think we’ve succeeded in that."

Bensinger also implemented block scheduling of classes to allow both remediation and enrichment programs for students on both ends of the academic spectrum. He has relished the task. "I value every child," he says. "Every student deserves the chance to learn and be the best he or she can be. That has been my goal here."

Martha Furniss, who has worked at Forest Edge for 20 years and is currently the school’s Registrar, says that of all Bensinger’s qualities, the one she admires most is his "inclusiveness."

"He wants to make sure that all parts of the school community are represented," she said. "He wants Forest Edge available and approachable to every single family."

Vanessa Bush, who is in her 32nd year at Forest Edge as building supervisor, said "Frank is an incredibly caring person, both to the school’s staff and to the children. I see his devotion to them every day, whether to scold, to hug or to listen; he’s there for them."

And Steven Greenberg, President of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers and a third grade teacher at Forest Edge who has taught under Bensinger for 13 years, summed up the feelings of students, teachers, parents and the entire Reston community for Bensinger: "Frank Bensinger espouses the finest qualities a principal can possess. His unconditional love of children, appreciation for the community around Forest Edge and respect for the parents and staff is reflected in the warm and accepting atmosphere of the school … His contributions to the Reston community, Forest Edge, Fairfax County Public Schools and the lives of those he has come into contact with are immeasurable."

THE PROCESS for identifying Forest Edge’s next principal is under way. But as Stu Gibson, School Board representative for the Hunter Mill District, said, "Frank Bensinger is one of those people in our community so valuable that they can’t be replaced. We’ll find a successor to him, not a replacement."