The seeds were sown in the early 1960s when, as a young teacher, she was asked to teach “struggling readers” in a resource room. As the year progressed, it became readily apparent that the instructional model being used — the same model found in public schools across the country — was not coming close to meeting the students’ needs.
As a result of that experience, she vowed to pursue a doctoral degree that would help her identify the most effective research-based practices for teaching students who learn differently so that she could open a school that would enable those students to meet with success in school and life. And that is just what she did.
Propelled by her vision as well as the hard work, energy, and expertise of a core of passionate and gifted individuals, Dr. Irene Gaskins founded Benchmark School in 1970.
The first school in the Philadelphia area for students who learn differently, Benchmark School was initially located in the basement of the Wallingford Presbyterian Church before moving to its current location in 1975 when the construction of the current lower school was completed.
The school was grounded in building students’ confidence and competence by teaching them a wide variety of thinking strategies and executive functioning skills. In addition, from the outset it was recognized that helping students who had struggled to meet with success in school required more than just academic strategies, it required instruction and support related to affective issues, too.
Students responded extremely well to the program and the school expanded rapidly. Over the next 30 years, this expansion led to the construction of the school’s beautiful gymnasium, middle school, performing arts center, and administrative wing as well as two exciting challenge courses, a playground, playing fields, and an in-ground swimming pool.
In 2007, Benchmark School welcomed its second head of school, Dr. Robert Gaskins. A former professor at the University of Kentucky in literacy education who had more recently served as the associate head at Benchmark School, he built on the successful instructional and institutional frameworks in place by adding significant new elements to the school’s leadership design, instructional practices, and infrastructure. Related to instruction alone, among other actions, he initiated a strong emphasis on technology and design thinking, mindfulness practices, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. The emphasis on technology and design thinking also led to the construction of the school’s dynamic Innovation Lab in 2018.
In 2019, Benchmark School continued its tradition of strong leadership by hiring Ralph Wales as interim head for one year as the board of trustees engaged in a comprehensive search for the school’s third head of school. Following a five-month national search, the Board of Trustees unanimously selected Chris Hancock to be Benchmark’s third head of school, effective July 1, 2020.
While Benchmark School has continued to grow and change over the past 50 years, what has not changed is the staff’s enthusiasm for teaching and their commitment to excellence and innovation. That enthusiasm includes an enduring interest in sharing new instructional ideas with other educators.
Consequently, Benchmark’s teachers and administrators often present at local, state, and international conferences. That enthusiasm also includes looking forward to interacting with our students, parents, and colleagues every day.
Benchmark School is licensed by the Pennsylvania State Board of Private Academic Schools and has been accorded 501(c)(3) status by the Internal Revenue Service. A not-for-profit, independent school, Benchmark relies on tuition and charitable gifts for its operation. Accredited by Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, which is a member in good standing of the National Association of Independent Schools’ Commission on Accreditation.
Benchmark School does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion, gender and sexuality diversity, age, or against qualified individuals with disabilities on the basis of disability, in its admissions and financial program, in the administration of its educational program, or in its employment policies.
Irene Gaskins designed Benchmark not only to be a special school for helping struggling readers, but she also wanted it to be a laboratory for designing instruction that works for all students.
Tim Rasinski, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy Education, Kent State University
Benchmark has perfected its instructional model over a 49-year period and yet continues to refine it and extend it. All struggling learners should be taught so well and so intensively.
Dick Allington, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy Studies, University of Tennessee; Member, International Reading Association's Hall of Fame