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SCHOOL CHIEF QUITS TO DIRECT EFFORT TO AID POOR STUDENTS

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Salt Lake City School Superintendent John Bennion will resign Sept. 1 to join the University of Utah faculty as a teacher and fund-raiser who will focus entirely on improving education for low-income urban children.

Bennion will be a clinical professor in the departments of educational administration and educational studies. He also will direct the Utah Education Consortium, a partnership between the U. and five surrounding school districts.He has outlined a project that, in part, plans to help as many as 30 teachers a year participate in mini-sabbaticals at the U. to better their skills in instructing urban children and youth.

Teaching these students is "the real frontier in public education," according to Bennion, who has long expressed frustration at the inability of schools to help low-income youngsters do better academically.

"All you have to do is look at the large achievement gap between schools from affluent areas and schools from low-income areas to recognize that is a very special challenge," he said. "That gap is unacceptably great and we need to learn how to narrow it if these youngsters are going to have a chance for a better life and not be caught in an endless cycle of being undereducated and poor."

Not helping these students squanders individual abilities and also presents a social time bomb, he said.

Bennion will help develop curricula to train teachers and administrators in new classroom techniques as well as develop ways to link up with social services - mental health care, nutritional counseling, parenting advice, health services and others - to strengthen troubled families.

"The environment outside school makes a very big difference as to how well a youngster can take advantage of the learning opportunities inside school," Bennion said.

Bennion has been Salt Lake's superintendent for nine years and altogether has been a school superintendent for 25 years in four different districts.

He said he is especially proud of encouraging site-based decision making in the Salt Lake district.

School board member Roger Thompson said Bennion will be missed.

"We are all disappointed he's leaving; he's been a real asset to the district," Thompson said. "He's very eloquent, he understands issues very well and his emphasis on our inner-city problems and at-risk students has been exemplary.

"I hope we can find a good replacement," Thompson said.