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Uncharted waters: KNPE alum leading COVID-prompted online public school

November 30, 2020
David Benson
David Benson

Families in the 15,000-student Thompson School District of Loveland, Colorado, were offered an intriguing and innovative option this fall as the COVID-19 pandemic barreled into another semester.

Called Thompson Connect Online (TCO), it’s a completely virtual “school” created solely to enroll the 1,800 kindergartners through high school seniors who chose to learn exclusively from their home computers.

Unlike many other districts across the country providing a mix of remote-only, face-to-face or a hybrid of both throughout their schools, Thompson has concentrated its online delivery under one “roof” in TCO.

And standing at the helm of its K-8 program is Principal David Benson, a 1993 alum of the NIU College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

Despite needing to confront the ongoing virus while working on the cutting edge of education, Benson says, Year One is a success story so far.

“This is new territory,” says Benson, whose team of 53 teachers and support staffers spent five months planning and problem-solving for their Sept. 1 launch.

“We use the analogy of building a plane while it’s in mid-air,” he adds, “and we’re constantly adjusting to the outside forces. Even for veteran teachers, this has the feeling of your first year of teaching – in terms of troubleshooting, in terms of trial-and-error, in terms of finding out what works and what doesn’t.”

Benson, who last year was principal of Southwood Middle School in Country Club Hills, is enjoying his opportunity to lead the maiden voyage of a program “that provides students with the same level of academic challenge that they would get from in-person learning.”

“There are changes in the paradigm – there are changes in the structure – but we still are required to have the same goals and the same results,” he says. “We’re learning to view things differently, but we’re not lessening our expectations.”

TCO students technically remain on the rosters of their home schools and, to the greatest extent possible, are assigned to classes with students from those home schools. They also are eligible to participate in extracurricular activities when available.

Initial growing pains are evolving into lessons learned, Benson says, and families are “pleased with the level of academic engagement and instruction” overall.

“There is always certainly an adjustment for every single person. There’s an adjustment for the teaching staff, for the administration, for the parents, for the students. You learn throughout the process, and we are a much-higher-functioning and more efficient program in November than we were in September,” Benson says.

“Our parents and students have gotten into a routine and have learned to navigate their own educational environment,” he adds. “Because this environment is asynchronous, it requires a lot of self-direction from my students, and you can imagine that the parents are more involved as the kids are younger.”

His goal for students, he says, is that they can leave TCO in June ready to return to face-to-face classrooms should the pandemic finally subside by next fall.

His goal for teachers and staff, meanwhile, is that they adapt and grow in response to the difficult circumstances of the “new normal.”

“When you’re thrown into the deep end, you’re either going to be forced to swim or not,” Benson says

“My staff have developed skills that will be quite useful once we return to what are traditional educational platforms,” he adds. “Perhaps my teachers who didn’t have the high level of instructional technology and instructional delivery through Google, through Zoom, through multiple platforms, now have been forced to gain that expertise – and now they can use that level of expertise in the future.” This is now an educational skillset that’s in everybody’s toolbox.”

Personally, Benson has remained true to his philosophy of “making those micro-improvements every single week” through “constant reflection.”

“My goal as a principal is to be better this week than last week, and that my program is better this week than last,” he says. “The idea of reimagining educational delivery through online learning is exciting because, as I said, this is everybody’s first experience.”

But whether TCO will continue as a post-COVID asset and alternative is currently unknown.

“We’re going to see what families want and what families need. We have 360 square miles of district, so we have families that might prefer online,” Benson says. “The programs we’re using are academically rigorous, and we’ve been excited to see the levels of growth of our students compared to past data points.”

Marc Schaffer, superintendent of the Thompson School District, likes what he has seen in his fellow NIU College of Education alum.

That includes, Schaffer says, “his focus on equity, his commitment to the student experience and his willingness to listen to the feedback of staff, students and the community in order to make informed and responsive decisions.”

Marc Schaffer
Marc Schaffer

“As a fellow NIU Huskie, I knew that David’s collegiate preparation was top-notch and world-class,” says Schaffer, who holds Ed.S. and Ed.D. degrees in Educational Administration (2006 and 2009, respectively) and an M.S.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction earned in 1996.

“We were immediately struck by his passion, creativity and tenacity for ensuring equity and equitable teaching and learning practices into how he approaches his work,” Schaffer adds. “David brings with him a skillset and familiarity with digital and online learning venues that made him a particularly excellent fit for our Thompson Connect Online program.”

Benson’s journey began in his native Chicago, where he grew up knowing he wanted to teach. That goal, along with a passion for coaching sports, brought him to DeKalb in 1989.

“I had a double-major in P.E. and Sport Medicine,” he says. “The clinicals and field experiences were quite rigorous, and the expectations from my professors were high, which set me up for the standard of being a professional. NIU did prepare me well for my career, and I haven’t looked back.”

After graduation, he taught P.E., health and science classes for more than a decade Oak Park Elementary School District 97 before entering the administrative ranks there, serving as an interim elementary principal.

He then became a principal in the Queen Bee School District 16 of Glendale Heights before moving to Country Club Hills.

When the opportunity arose this year to relocate to Colorado, Benson was open: His wife has family, friends and professional connections in the Centennial State. She’s also an alumna of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where their daughter is now a sophomore.

Benson now is proud and excited of his role at TCO, which he leads via Google Meet from an office in the district headquarters.

“To create a program that didn’t exist, in an incredibly short window, is quite impressive for Thompson and for any other district that takes this on: It’s forward-thinking, and it’s meeting the needs of families,” he says.

“It was maybe a little shocking to me how many students and families wanted to take this on, but that speaks to their concern for their health and well-being,” he adds. “This health crisis has affected everyone’s life, and very few people are going through this unscathed.”