On a recent trip to my ancestral homeland, Italy, I had the opportunity to visit early childhood centres and schools working in the Reggio Emilia Approach. Child centered, self-directed and constructivist in nature, these schools were inspiring in every way. It was not possible to gloss past even the simple things – the outdoors was brought in for study, the custodians and cooks welcomed visitors along with the principal and teachers. Every school I entered had intentional signage that helped you understand how the school had been named. It made me start to wonder about my own school. I teach at Bennetto Public School. What did I know about its name? Well… I knew it used to be called Centennial and that a generation after it had been built it was amalgamated with its neighboring middle school, ‘Bennetto’. But who was Bennetto? I assumed it was a stuffy old Superintendent. That trip to Reggio Emilia where students had researched their namesake and written about it made me curious. I started with a google search and then a dove into the Hamilton – Wentworth School Board Archives and the City of Hamilton archives housed in the Hamilton Public Library. The records are quite interesting.

Our namesake, Susan Bennetto, had a remarkable career. Born in England in 1850 and immigrating to the great port city of Hamilton shortly afterward she grew up with a seamstress mother and carpenter father on Cannon Street.  By the age of 17 she graduated with a First Class teaching certificate and earned an impressive $200 per year. Establishing a strong reputation, she was assigned to Canada’s first graded public school, Central School on Hunter Street West. Susan E. Bennetto left Hamilton briefly and returned to find out that a new school was being erected on the northeast corner of Picton and Catharine Street – because she was capable and ambitious she applied and succeeded in winning a position as “head teacher” – a position that no woman before her had held.

By 1888, at the age of 38, she held the position of Principal and held that position for more than 30 years. By 1920, a year after her death, a 10 room addition was added to the Picton Street School and the school was renamed Bennetto School in her honour.  She was granted this distinctive honour because she touched the lives of hundreds of students and so many fellow teachers (including five future mayors and other prominent figures in the history of Hamilton).

The Susan E. Bennetto Award is named in her honour. The award is given to all nominated Hamilton secondary school students who meet the requirement of demonstrating commitment to history programs within their schools and involvement in the community.  There is no limit to the number of nominations and all nominations for this award are automatically considered for the Hamilton History Student of the Year Awards.  The awards are presented annually during Heritage Week, which took place February 22, 2020.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the naming of Bennetto School. There’s recently been talk among parents, teachers and community members about how delightful and just it would be to have the school renamed Susan E. Bennetto for this occassion. In this month, when we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is a great opportunity to study her story, and teach it to the children who have inherited a part of her legacy.

By Francesca Alfano, Bennetto Teacher