Why I Give
Benchmark School is so very grateful to the donors who make our mission possible. We rely on generous supporters to accomplish our shared mission of transforming futures and empowering success for our bright students who learn differently. Our donors tell us every day how passionate they are about supporting Benchmark School and how deeply they believe in our work. We're excited to share testimonials from a few of these generous supporters.
To share your story, please contact Director of Development Louisa Hanshew.
- Tom and Cheryl Weir
- Jennifer and Samir Mehta
- Elana Honig & Baltazar Juarez
- Patti & Michael Semerjian
- Kate & Mark McAllister
- Kimberlee Orth
- Annie Jones
- Jami Wintz McKeon
When Tom and Cheryl Weir talk about their son Sawyer, every anecdote reveals a person with great enthusiasm, who pursued his interests with gusto.
When Sawyer was a young elementary school student, however, his parents were beginning to see a different Sawyer. He was struggling, and by the end of first grade, his self-confidence was low. They had tests done, which indicated ADD. Sawyer was very gifted in math, but reading was hard for him. The Weirs had just moved to the Philadelphia area from Florida, and some teachers that Cheryl had befriended said, “Look at Benchmark.” So, Sawyer spent a summer at Benchmark Camp, which he loved, and then enrolled in school in the fall. Cheryl says, “His reading skills skyrocketed. Now, he wasn’t competing with a kid in the same grade who didn’t have any problem and was always at the top of his class. By the end of first grade, Sawyer had no confidence. But by the end of second grade, it was the opposite. Benchmark gave Sawyer the confidence that he could succeed.”
Cheryl recalls that Sawyer’s path at Benchmark wasn’t always easy. She says, “He didn’t like to be thought of as different, and he wanted to be at school with his friends in his community. He knew that Benchmark helped him, though. One time we were all watching “Braveheart” and I said, ‘What is going on here? I don’t understand this!’ and Sawyer said, ‘Mom, they’re building the characters and the setting, and then they’ll get to the plot.’ He was so proud of himself for understanding the structure and being able to explain it. Benchmark did that.”
Tom notes, “We were very fortunate when we moved from Florida to Philadelphia. Having Benchmark practically in our backyard gave Sawyer an opportunity. There aren’t many schools like Benchmark around the country. We’ve talked to other parents in Pensacola whose kids need a school like Benchmark, and they all say we’re so fortunate to have found it. We give to Benchmark because we want to continue to see Benchmark flourish. We want to give kids who are gifted in different ways a chance to succeed.”
Reading wasn’t the only area of exploration and improvement that Sawyer discovered at Benchmark; he developed an interest in the creative arts, particularly ceramics. Sawyer was always the biggest kid in the room, and well known for his interest in athletics, but his foray into art astonished and delighted his family. Tom says, “Benchmark brought this [love of art] out in him; we didn’t know it existed. He was given an art award when he graduated from Benchmark, which surprised us all.” Sawyer pursued his interest in visual arts as a hobby in high school and college, expanding into sculpture.
Sawyer’s life was cut short by a car accident when he was 24, just after he’d married, and in the beginning of a successful professional career. Tom wants current Benchmark students to know that Sawyer was a person who persevered. “That’s the biggest part of him. He made the best of it. He became a student that he never thought he was. They taught him to ask for help. All through high school and college, he was never afraid to ask his professors or teachers for help. He’d sit in the front row, and had no problem going up and interacting with the professor after class. I think that’s something that a lot of kids going through the educational system avoid. It was surprising, in a good way, that Sawyer took that away from Benchmark.”
In Sawyer’s honor, Tom and Cheryl Weir have endowed The Sawyer Henry Weir Creative Learning Initiative, which provides professional development for faculty and staff around a learning environment using art as a catalyst.
Jennifer and Samir Mehta live across the river in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Benchmark is not exactly their neighborhood school. But when Jennifer was beginning to visit schools to support her daughter Norah’s dyslexia, she encountered a woman at another school who essentially said, “If you’re going to come all the way from New Jersey, why not go to Benchmark?”
Jennifer says, “When I did come to visit Benchmark, something felt right. It reminded me of Norah’s Montessori preschool. It felt nurturing and welcoming, not institutional, like some other schools I visited.”
Since Norah began at Benchmark in third grade several years ago, she has made great strides in her academic abilities. Beyond classroom skills, Jennifer and Samir appreciate that Benchmark is a place where Norah feels comfortable and safe. Jennifer says, “Everyone we—and Norah—have come into contact with here sees Norah for who she is. They see her strengths. Her weaknesses never overshadow who she is, and what her strengths are.” Samir adds, “The structure fits her needs. She recognizes that it’s a good fit. Her peer group is really important too. In public school, she was seen as different. There are no labels here.”
Jennifer and Samir, who have contributed to professional development in support of the Innovation Lab, feel strongly about the importance of giving to a school like Benchmark. Samir says, “Giving to Benchmark helps to put the students’ needs at the forefront. The fiscal part of running a school is hard. Educating students is expensive. For learners who learn differently, you can’t apply the same format for all of them. You need resources, and you don’t want the budget to be the primary driver of what students can have. If we can help with that, we want to do it.”
Jennifer recalls the difficulties they all experienced before their family found Benchmark. “When Norah was still in public school, there was so much stress of trying to know what to do, of trying to get the school to know what they had to do—it was a stressor for the whole family. Finding Benchmark, getting her here, was the biggest relief. I could go back to my role as mother, not full-time advocate. This is why we give—we wish we could give more. Not everyone can make it work to be here, and we want to make it so more kids can be here. It’s really invaluable.”
...We feel we are so fortunate to be able to send our children wherever they need to go that’s the best fit for them, and we think the level of support that this school offers its students is something that should be supported.
Patti Semerjian, Current Parent
“I was always so sorry that I disappointed my teachers.” This statement brings Patti Semerjian to tears when she shares how her son Matt, then in third grade, said this to her two weeks after entering Benchmark in 2014. Fortunately, Matt continued by saying, “I’m not disappointing anyone here. They just want me to do my personal best.” As Patti says, what more can you ask for in a school?
Matt and his brother were first graders at The Haverford School when Michael and Patti noticed that Matt was struggling with reading and keeping up with some of his classmates. Even with tutoring over the summer, Matt’s struggles continued in second grade.
“We were relying on tutors even more, trying to really provide him with support, thinking he was just sort of lagging and somehow he would catch up,” Patti says. “We had Matt tested, and as we were evaluating those results, the person who tested him talked about Benchmark. People at Haverford also talked about Benchmark...but we loved Haverford and really wanted to try to make it work. By the end of that winter, we started accepting the fact that Haverford might not have everything that he needed. We did a lot of soul searching and decided that he would go to Benchmark’s Summer Camp and then to the school in the fall. I think it was the best decision we could have ever made. I think we were apprehensive at the time...but he had a wonderful experience at camp. It was within just a week or two that we realized he was coming home with a smile on his face and was really happy about where he was and having people listening to him and wanting to help him.”
Patti says that Matt is becoming very accepting of who he is, aware of his strengths and weaknesses, and learning strategies to compensate for his challenges. Matt’s siblings now have their own Benchmark stories as well; his younger sister Nicole enrolled in 2015 and “absolutely loves school” her mom says. Matt’s brother attends Benchmark’s Summer Camp with his siblings because “Matt did such a good job talking about it,” Patti says.
“We feel very lucky that we are able to have our children at Benchmark and benefit from it,” Patti explains. “Part of the reason we support The Benchmark Fund is that we feel we are so fortunate to be able to send our children wherever they need to go that’s the best fit for them. Not every family can do that, and we think the level of support that this school offers its students is something that should be supported.
“I’ve always realized that, as it relates to private schools, while the tuition may seem like it’s a large amount, the funds are just so important to the financial stability to the institution,” she continues. “I realize that the tuition dollars that are collected can’t cover everything that the school is able to provide to the students. I’m a big believer in the fact that it doesn’t have to be a huge donation - any amount is meaningful.”
Patti is fortunate to have an employer that offers a great employee match program, which allows their gifts to have an even greater impact.
As Matt’s Benchmark experience progresses, Patti and Michael are able to see more every day how their investment is paying off. This year marked Matt’s transition from Benchmark’s lower school to the middle school. Patti admits that she wasn’t really sure what the “self-advocacy skills” Benchmark always promoted would look like, but now, as Matt is maturing, Patti and Michael can see those skills in Matt and his friends.
“They have an awareness of themselves and what they’re good at, what their challenges are, and what they have to work a bit harder on...and it’s a sort of confidence that just because they have challenges doesn’t mean they can’t be successful in what they want to do,” she says.
“We are just big believers in anything Benchmark does.”
Coming to Benchmark has been the most important and influential decision we have made as parents, without a doubt. It’s the most important thing we did for our daughter, and we are forever grateful to Benchmark.
Kate McAllister, Alumna Parent
When Kate and Mark McAllister bought their home in a beautiful Philadelphia suburb, they never planned on their child attending a private school since they were moving to one of the most highly-ranked public school districts in the nation. However, when their daughter Bryn entered kindergarten, they quickly realized that public school might not be the best fit for her, as she began to struggle in the classroom and lose confidence in her abilities.
Throughout Bryn’s kindergarten and first grade years, the McAllisters followed the school’s suggestions and tried support programs to supplement Bryn’s classroom experience. “All of their programs seemed to be geared toward kids who weren’t being read to or didn’t have exposure to reading,” says Kate. “They didn’t seem to be geared toward a child who actually had a different way of learning or different needs than the typical student. By the end of first grade, Bryn’s self-esteem was at rock bottom.”
The McAllisters decided to have Bryn privately tested. Kate recalls that the tests revealed that Bryn’s reading rate and fluency showed a “clear disconnect.” On the advice of the psychologist who administered the test, the McAllisters attended a Benchmark Open House. Kate was soon convinced that Bryn needed a program like Benchmark. Mid-way through second grade, they enrolled a reluctant Bryn. Fortunately, the changes came swiftly.
“We saw the impact Benchmark had on Bryn immediately,” says Kate. “In terms of not just her reading but her self-confidence and her ability to self advocate. We knew that Bryn was in the right place and wanted to do anything we could to support Benchmark.”
Mark and Kate are now faithful donors to The Benchmark Fund. They choose to give out of an appreciation for how Benchmark’s curriculum and teaching methods work for students who learn differently. They see that Bryn has learned to think creatively, to look at subjects with a broad perspective, and to explore the strategies she has learned to facilitate her own growth. Mark and Kate believe that all of these skills will benefit Bryn and her classmates for the rest of their lives. For those reasons, when the McAllisters were given the opportunity to be one of the benefactors of the school’s new Aquaponics program (see sidebar), they jumped at the chance.
“We think it’s the hands-on learning opportunities and the conceptual learning that the kids remember and gives them a greater understanding of the world,” says Kate. “We love that Benchmark teaches that way and they teach it in so many cool ways. To us, supporting the Aquaponics program seemed like a no-brainer.
“Before Bryn came to Benchmark, she would get frustrated and a wall would go up. She would be done,” Kate continues. “Now, she knows if she starts to get frustrated, she just has to step back and try a different strategy. She has this whole toolbox that she can tap anytime she needs to. She’s learned perseverance, she’s confident, she wants to learn, she likes to be a leader, and she’s always participating.
“Coming to Benchmark has been the most important and influential decision we have made as parents, without a doubt,” Kate says. “It’s the most important thing we did for Bryn. We are forever grateful to Benchmark.”
What is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, or the science of growing fish and plants together in one integrated, soilless system. It is widely determined to be the most sustainable, naturally grown agriculture for the future.
Building STEM Skills through Aquaponics is a program developed by Riverbend Environmental Education Center in Gladwyne to provide teachers with all of the tools and skills needed to deliver an innovative, STEM-based curriculum. Building STEM Skills through Aquaponics recently received the 2017 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence.
Through the generosity of our benefactors and in partnership with Riverbend, Benchmark School will now offer this exceptional, hands-on curriculum to sixth and seventh graders, bringing science to life as they think critically and work collaboratively to address the challenge of growing healthy food for future generations. The initial Aquaponics project at Benchmark will include a 20-gallon aquaponics system for the classroom, teacher training, professional support, and a full-day field trip to Riverbend’s aquaponics greenhouse for students.
Benchmark is grateful to the McAllister and Veale families, our Aquaponics benefactors, who have allowed us to bring this award-winning program into our curriculum. We are thrilled to introduce Aquaponics during the 2017-2018 school year.
We believe 100% in the mission of Benchmark School,” Kim said. “The gratitude and appreciation we have for this school is just tremendous.
Kimberlee Orth, Alumna Parent
Kimberlee Orth and her husband, Robin, were seasoned parents by the time their fourth child Julie— affectionately referred to as “the fourth Orth”—entered kindergarten at Wilmington Montessori School. Each of Julie’s three older siblings had attended the school, all had shown interest in reading in either kindergarten or first grade, and the Orths knew the teachers and staff there well. So when Julie wasn’t interested in reading in kindergarten, they believed it would come in time.
Unfortunately, in first grade, Julie’s interest in reading didn’t improve, nor did her classroom experiences. By second grade, Kim realized that Julie was increasingly aware of what she was not learning in the classroom and that knowledge was beginning to affect how she saw herself. Even with tutoring and sessions with reading specialists, it was obvious that Julie was relying on memorization to get by. The Orths knew something had to change.
“We talked to the principal at Wilmington Montessori who has a Ph.D. in reading,” Kim said. “And she said if Julie were her child, she would send her to Benchmark.”
The Orths did not hesitate to take action. They enrolled Julie in Benchmark’s full-day summer camp program—a step they say they would encourage any parent to do if their child is struggling “even a little bit.” After the first week of camp, they were sure Benchmark was the right place for Julie and they applied for fall admission.
During her first year at Benchmark, Julie made significant progress under the guidance of Sherry Cress or “the goddess of reading” as Kim refers to her. Julie is now a 7th grader and flourishing at Benchmark, becoming what the Orths call “a curious learner.”
“We believe 100% in the mission of Benchmark School,” Kim said. “The gratitude and appreciation we have for this school is just tremendous.” This is why Kim and Robin, who are both professionals in the field of finance, have given to The Benchmark Fund every year since Julie enrolled. They also were pleased to give of their time to cochair The Benchmark Fund in 2014-2015.
Kim believes strongly that the benefits of a Benchmark education stretch far beyond “just” learning to read. “We value the entire package [at Benchmark],” she said. “What school is teaching mindfulness? What school is teaching a child about what kind of learner they are? What school is teaching a child how to advocate for themselves with an adult or person in authority? That’s Benchmark School.”
As Julie nears the end of her time at Benchmark, the Orths are confident in the school’s transition process and trust that the staff will help Julie find the next best school for her. “There’s so much of the methodology of this school that is tied to strong educational principles and proven research,” Kim explained. “It’s not just that Dr. [Irene] Gaskins came up with a good idea one day that Robb has expanded upon. It’s been tested. It’s been researched. It’s been refined. I believe that if they say that after 8th grade you’re ready to leave, then I trust that.”
“Every parent and every child at the school is so fortunate to have been directed to Benchmark,” Kim said. “This school is a gem.”
Because I know what a great job the school does, I now feel even more strongly about supporting Benchmark.
Annie Jones, Current & Alumna Grandparent
It was in 2001 that Annie Jones first learned of Benchmark School when her granddaughter, Cordelia (Lee Lee) Jones, began as a student. For the next seven years, Annie watched as Lee Lee began to learn about herself as a learner and gain confidence. “Lee Lee was at Benchmark for a long time, and she thrived there,” Annie said.
While Lee Lee left Benchmark in 2008 as a confident, budding student, Annie chose not to wait for this transformation to begin supporting Benchmark. In fact, she first gave to the school just three months after Lee Lee enrolled “because I wanted to support the people who were helping my grandchild,” she said.
Since then, Annie has continued to support Benchmark in its mission as she watched four more of her grandchildren make their way through the school—Walker ’13, Hudson ’14, and Holcomb and Harry (current students). Though all five have had different strengths and challenges, Annie said she has seen transformations in all of her grandchildren since they started at Benchmark—specifically regarding their confidence levels. “They have been very happy there [at Benchmark] and have become more confident because they are not so frustrated and because they have had a lot of individual attention and support,” she said. “Confidence is the real base for anybody doing anything well, and I think confidence-building is one of the strengths of Benchmark.”
While Annie does not get to Benchmark very often due to living a distance away, she always tries to attend Grandparent and Special Guest Day in the spring to see her grandchildren “in action” in the classroom. In particular, she commented on how terrific she thought this past year’s event was.
“In Holcomb’s 5th grade class, they did a wonderful presentation— ‘Around the World in 80 books’—and the kids got up and discussed the books that they had read through a skit they were doing,” she said. “It was just so refreshing because you could just see that the kids themselves were enjoying every minute of it. It was a really fun morning and stands out as one of the best Grandparent’s Days because they [the students] were so involved and you could tell that they were really enjoying reading. Plus, it’s so obvious to see how committed the faculty is and how much they care about these kids.”
In addition to giving to The Benchmark Fund every year at a leadership level, Annie has shown her support for the school by serving as the Grandparent Representative for The Benchmark Fund for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 campaigns. “Because I know what a great job [the school] does, I now feel even more strongly about supporting Benchmark,” she said.
Annie has 12 grandchildren in eight different schools, but emphasizes that she is “very grateful for the job that Benchmark does.” While some of her grandchildren are still working through academic challenges, she is confident that with the proper guidance they will all succeed in their own time. “Benchmark has really given them all a chance to get their feet on the ground,” she said.
I’ve seen firsthand the approach teachers [at Benchmark] take, the quality of the education, and that—most importantly—it works.
Jami Wintz McKeon, Alumna Parent
When Jami Wintz McKeon’s daughter, Benchmark alumna Samantha McKeon ’98, first started at Benchmark School in 1992, she was similar to many other Benchmark students in that she was a bright child who struggled with reading.
“After just a short time of Samantha being at Benchmark, her reading struggles practically went away,” Jami recalled. “Benchmark certainly helped to unlock Samantha’s potential and gave her the tools she needed to succeed in school. Since leaving Benchmark, Samantha has received compliments on her study skills and the fact that she can articulate what she understands and what she needs help on. It’s empowered and enabled her to succeed in education and in life.”
Today, at age 29, Samantha is certainly successful. Working in New York City as Public Relations Manager for fashion designer Veronica Beard, Jami said that she is definitely in her element. “She is doing exactly what she has always wanted to do. She has a great work ethic and has been flourishing ever since she moved to New York City in 2006.”
Although Samantha has not been a Benchmark student for 13 years, her continued success is part of the reason why Jami still gives to Benchmark each year.
“I first gave to Benchmark [in 1993] because we were so delighted with the education Samantha received while she was there and because we agreed with the philosophy of the School,” Jami said. “After Samantha graduated [in 1998], I decided to keep giving to Benchmark because of a combination of gratitude for all of the opportunities Samantha got while she was there, and because I believe that you have to invest in places that offer the kind of support that Benchmark does.”
Jami believes that Samantha’s overall experience at Benchmark was a remarkable one. “Benchmark is certainly unique among all the schools that Samantha has attended,” Jami said. “Although the education was of key importance, I loved how there was always great sports and theatre at the school, too. I felt like just because she was at a different school, it didn’t take her away from being exposed and involved in extra-curricular [activities].”
To those parents who are hesitant about making the transition to Benchmark for their child who is experiencing difficulty in school, Jami’s advice is to not wait or be fearful about making the change. “I was lucky enough that Samantha could start at Benchmark in first grade before she had experienced a lot of struggles in her traditional school,” Jami said. “But I can’t tell you how many parents told me that they wished they had transitioned their child to Benchmark sooner so that they could avoid their child feeling a sense of failure or affecting a sense of self-worth and confidence. They don’t need to go through that.”
Although Jami mostly admires the work of Benchmark from afar these days because she is busy as Chair of the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, she said she continues to give confidently because she believes in the mission of the School and how it is run. “I’ve seen first hand the approach teachers take, the quality of the education, and that—most importantly—it works.”
Coming to Benchmark has been the most important and influential decision we have made as parents, without a doubt. It’s the most important thing we did for our daughter, and we are forever grateful to Benchmark.
Kate McAllister, Alumna Parent