Colorado AcademyUpper School History teacher Randall Martínez will spend a part of summer 2022 in Berkeley, Calif., learning how to teach digital storytelling skills to his Colorado Academy Ninth Grade Global Perspectives students.
“For me, this feels like authentic support for my journey to become a better teacher,” Martínez says. “I am incredibly grateful that CA sees the importance of professional development to better serve our students.”
At the same time, Upper School English teacher Emily Pérez, who is a poet and editor, will travel around the country, from Harvard University to Whidbey Island (near Seattle), to present her work, participate on panels, and immerse herself in an artist’s residency.
“This is the thing that feeds me as a person and a teacher,” Pérez says. “Being able to tend to my own creative life makes me excited to bring creativity into the lives of students.”
These opportunities for professional development and engagement are supported by former trustee Bob Benson and his wife Cynthia through a generous gift to Colorado Academy. In 1995, Benson established the Ruth and Ernest Benson Professional Development Fund, and in 2021, he added to his original gift with the Benson Summer Fellowship, which enables two Upper School faculty members to receive grants up to $10,000 to cover professional development and engagement related to their subject matter. Martínez and Pérez are the inaugural Benson Summer Fellows.
“CA is an impressive learning community and the faculty engagement and commitment are off the charts,” says Benson. “The faculty put in so many hours every week. I think very few of them would say, ‘I really enjoy a lot of free time!’ That’s why I believe professional development opportunities for external learning and stimulation are a welcome tonic for teachers.”
The Benson family and CA
The Benson family’s connection to CA started when their son Erik ’96 enrolled in Third Grade in 1985.
“He had Suzanne Kolsun Jackson,” Benson says. “I don’t even need to say anything more about what that was like. We got off on a great footing.”
Kolsun Jackson remembers Benson visiting her class and joining a group of students who were “reading up a storm.”
“He had a big smile on his face,” she says. “He is a huge supporter of education.”
Benson’s daughter, Kiersa ’02, was in CA’s first Pre-Kindergarten class, distinguishing her as one of the first Super-Lifers at the school.
What impressed both Bob and Cynthia was the insight teachers had into the personalities and learning styles of each of their children.
“Our two kids were very different,” Bob says. “Both were respected and supported in their unique needs and interests at CA.”
In 1989, Benson stepped beyond his role as parent to become a trustee. For five years, he served in a variety of leadership roles as a member of the Headmaster’s Advisory and Finance Committees, chair of the Education and Strategic Planning Committees, and he spent two years as Vice-president of the Board.
“I have a huge amount of respect for [Dr.] Mike Davis’s leadership and the culture he has continued to enhance at the school,” says Benson. “CA is constantly reinventing itself to keep up and shape society’s perceptions of what makes for relevant elementary and secondary education, and that shines through in the new mission statement.”
But in any conversation about CA, Benson always circles back to the level of commitment he has observed from faculty—teachers who do the very hard work of truly understanding each individual child at the school. When he asked himself how he could give back to these teachers, the answer came from the example his own parents had set.
The Benson family’s history of professional development
Together, Bob Benson’s parents, Ruth and Ernest Benson, spent 65 years of their lives serving students at the secondary level. Both came from modest means, both were stand-out students—his father at Boston University and Harvard University and his mother at Middlebury College, where she earned both a BA and MA in English—and both found that education could open doors to new opportunities.
“For the two of them, education was the gateway to all sorts of life possibilities,” Benson says. “They decided to give back by having careers in education, teaching and mentoring others.”
Ernest Benson started as a biology teacher at Culver Academy (now Culver Academies), a private boarding military academy founded in 1894 on 1,800 acres in Culver, Indiana. Eventually, the school groomed him for a leadership role—Assistant Dean of Students—by sending him to a semester of professional development at UCLA. Twice during his tenure at Culver, Ernest was tapped to be Acting Superintendent, the first civilian to fill that role.
Ruth Benson, who taught English, became the first fulltime woman teacher on the faculty. She attended a summer program at Northwestern University, and returned to Culver to develop a program that helped students at all levels improve the comprehension and speed of their reading.
Bob Benson watched his parents’ achievements with admiration, and learned about education, as he says, “from a perspective that was broader than most students’.” He went on to receive his BA, magna cum laude, from Harvard College, and an MBA, with distinction, from Harvard Business School. But he never forgot the hard work it took behind the scenes for teachers and administrators to give the most they could to students.
Decades of giving, decades of impact
Over a period of 35 years, the Benson family has supported CA in a variety of ways. They have given to the CA Fund, and they are members of the Musil Society. They have donated sculptures from their personal collection, including Anemotive Kinetic 5/9, the spherical, wind-propelled kinetic sculpture outside the Smith Center, created by Denver-based artist Robert Mangold, and Phoenix, by Hans Van de Bovenkamp, which graces the south side of the Upper School.
Benson also supports the CA Endowment, another lesson he learned from watching his father serve as a school administrator.
“I remember my father singling out a trustee who had donated to the endowment because his gift would have impact for many, many years ahead,” Benson says. “It is understandable that CA’s focus has been on upgrading buildings on the campus, but the school is at a new chapter of its life right now, and it’s important to support an endowment which will sustain the school in the future.”
Because of the connection to his parents, the Benson Professional Development Fund is close to Benson’s heart. He understands that professional development “can look very different from person to person but still be equally valid.” He believes it is a gift that has a ripple effect, as teachers return from their experiences and “enrich their colleagues by sharing.”
The first beneficiaries of the Bensons’ generosity are Pérez and Martínez. Pérez celebrated the publication of two books this spring. Among her many experiences during the summer of 2022, she will spend two weeks in residence at Hedgebrook, a highly selective community that supports visionary women writers, where she plans to work on her next book.
“Nothing is more inspiring for writers than hearing other writers talk about their processes and ideas,” she says. “It gets me fired up and carries over to the classroom.”
Martínez will extend his Benson Fellowship into a second summer, which he will spend at GeoCamp Iceland to learn how to teach students geographic inquiry skills. The Iceland program specifically examines environmental adaptation strategies being used to combat the effects of climate change. When he returns, Martínez plans to have students conduct their own geographic information systems projects, using the Denver area as a laboratory.
“For me, this shows that CA is willing to support teachers who want to get ahead of the curve and not just follow national trends,” Martínez says. “We are not just studying history, we are looking at how to create history. And that makes us pioneers in education pedagogy.”
But perhaps the final word about the impact of the Benson family’s generosity should come from the first teacher they met at CA—Suzanne Kolsun Jackson, who is now retired. “Bob Benson made the many wonderful professional development opportunities I had possible,” she says. “Really, it was Bob Benson who kept me at CA for 40 years.”