The Arizona Association of School Psychologists has named Palm Valley Elementary School Principal Jennifer Benjamin as its 2021 Administrator of the Year.
In her eight-year tenure as the principal of Palm Valley Elementary School, Benjamin has led her Thunderbird school family to the honor of being named a two-time A+ School of Excellence and a National Blue Ribbon School.
Despite the success she’s achieved in her time as principal, Benjamin admitted the award was a shock.
“I had actually gotten a phone call from the psychologist who was announcing it, and I was checking to see if there was a new student coming. An award was the furthest thing from my mind,” she said.
“So, when they shared that I had been nominated and that I won, I was honored, humbled and definitely had some tears. It’s pretty amazing.”
Shelly Smith Hornback, director of community relations with the Litchfield Elementary School District, deemed Benjamin a beloved school leader who is widely lauded for her teamwork, educational expertise, and keen ability to foster a strong school family.
As principal, Benjamin said one of her most important characteristics as a leader is to ensure the campus has a strong sense of camaraderie.
“It’s all about building the school family,” Benjamin said. “We have a very tight-knit group of teachers and staff and parents that have made this happen. And just making sure that everybody’s voices are heard and everybody feels included and supported. When they feel valued, they work hard, and we work hard and we play hard.”
As a former special education teacher, Benjamin is an advocate for Inclusion Revolution, an innovative program that fosters the academic and social-emotional growth of students with special needs by having them spend part of their day in general education classrooms.
“Inclusion Revolution is where students become tutors. So second graders, third, fourth and fifth graders have the option to do that and our school psychologist does some training with them. And when we started Inclusion Revolution, it was a complete culture shift, which was absolutely amazing. We started seeing general ed and special ed students becoming friends, building relationships, understanding that empathy and compassion which wasn’t always there for each other,” Benjamin said.
Palm Valley Elementary also houses the SAILS program (Social, Academic, Inclusion and Life Skills), where general education students gain empathy, leadership skills and new friendships by serving as peer tutors to students with special needs.
“Special ed has been near and dear to my heart since I was in middle school,” she said. “I was a peer tutor myself and fell in love with a self-contained classroom and working with a teacher and knew that was a passion for me and a life’s goal.”
After going to college initially to become a special education teacher and then switching to general education after a mentor saw her leadership potential, Benjamin still continued to be an advocate.
Throughout her career, Benjamin has served as a teaching resource for special education, a self-contained teacher for autism and as a special education instructional coach for the district, as well as director of the White Tanks Learning Center, before becoming principal at Palm Valley.
“I feel like all of those things have prepared me to be able to lead highly successful generalist students with a lot of rigor and helping us get to that National Blue Ribbon along with that special ed piece to make sure that we have that culture and climate through Inclusion Revolution,” she said.
While Benjamin said she’s excited about the award, she admitted above all she’s thrilled to have students back on campus and learning in a classroom environment as opposed to behind a computer screen.
“I’m so thankful to have kids in hallways, teachers in classrooms,” she said.
“It has not been an easy year coming back, but it has definitely filled our hearts and our buckets. There’s a lot of things that we’re still working through. It’s been difficult to maneuver some of the changes and keeping everybody healthy. But we have been so blessed that we’ve been able to do that and that kids are in classrooms and desks and learning from a teacher right in front of them.”
As November is already underway and the end of the year is approaching, Benjamin said she looks forward to the activities on campus that come with the holidays and returning to a sense of normalcy.
“We’re going to be doing the turkey trot, and it’s just having some of those events coming up that makes it feel like maybe we’re hopefully getting past COVID but just having some of those normal activities coming up like our holiday nights and we just finished our trunk or treat,” Benjamin said.
“These are things that kids remember about school. They don’t remember the specific standards that they were working on or learning. They remember those moments and those events, so I’m excited to have those things back and gearing up for some of those big things in the next few months.”
Benjamin was honored at a luncheon in Phoenix on Nov. 5.