Dr. Benjamin O. Canada was the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools from 1994 to 1998.
By Michelle E. Shaw
When Benjamin Canada accepted the job as Atlanta school superintendent in 1994, there was a lot of excitement in the air. He was the first hire of a reform-minded school board and he was a former teacher who promised to make radical changes to a system that was facing financial and academic problems.
“He came at a very exciting time in public education,” said Councilman Aaron Watson, who was president of the Atlanta school board when Canada was hired. “He was a part of setting higher standards, eliminating social promotions and more requirements around kids’ literacy before they moved on to higher grades.”
When he left Atlanta Public Schools in 1998, some were frustrated with what he hadn’t accomplished, but his impact couldn’t be ignored.
“Ben was a good fit for us and helped us face some tough issues,” Watson said during a May 1998 interview, a couple of months before Canada left Atlanta to head the public schools of Portland, Ore.
Canada, who stayed in Portland until 2001 and then went to work for the Texas Association of School Boards for 10 years before recently retiring, died Nov. 6 in Atlanta after a period of declining health. He was 67. Memorial plans are incomplete. Murray Brothers, Cascade Chapel was in charge of arrangements.
Canada was a native of Tallulah, La., who grew up in a family of teachers, according to an August 1994 Atlanta Journal-Constitution profile. He chose education over pulpit ministry, explaining that education was his ministry. In his first week as superintendent, he talked about setting “world-class standards,” the likes of which were talked about by the Clinton administration and education groups across the county. He wanted APS to seek federal funding though the then-new Educate America Act, which would only be possible if Atlanta students were measured by the new national standards.
“My experience has shown that if you set the benchmark high, provide teachers with the proper resources and set high expectations, students will come up to it,” Canada said at the time. “I would rather them fall short of world-class standards than a standard that is set where many people say, ‘Well, this is what minority children can do.’ “
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who was the chairman of the state school board during Canada’s tenure, remembers the former superintendent as a good leader.
“He was easy to work with and he was very approachable, and that wasn’t always the case with an APS superintendent,” the senator said. “I worked pretty closely with Ben Canada to get the first charter for Drew Elementary in East Lake, when the Cousins Foundation came forward wanting to take over what was basically an abandoned school and do a charter school. People know about Cousins rebuilding the golf course at East Lake, but I think very few people are aware of the leadership Dr. Canada gave, allowing that charter to be issued and working with Cousins to bring that charter about.”
Canada’s survivors include his wife, Doris Canada of Atlanta, and two daughters.