Tom Benson has been a principal in Solana Beach, Calif., a place where a middle-of-the-road house will cost you $1.1 million, and he's taught in south central Los Angeles, where textbooks were often a luxury.

And the fact that he's completed five Ironman triathlons, biked from Minnesota to Portland, Ore., climbed the highest peak in the continental U.S. and won a sailing series in Marina Del Ray, Calif., would suggest he's not afraid of a challenge.

So call it fate, luck or just good strategy, but it seems Benson and Pilot Knob Elementary -- a little melting pot of a school tucked off Lone Oak Road in Eagan -- are made for each other.

"If the kids here can get along and work together, it can happen anywhere," said Jay Haugen, the superintendent of West St. Paul-Mendota-Heights-Eagan schools. "Tom felt like the perfect person to have there for that."

The first-year principal plans to turn Pilot Knob, which has 343 students from kindergarten through 4th grade, into the third No Child Left Behind-Blue Ribbon school he's worked for and a model for closing achievement gaps everywhere.

He's certainly in a unique position to do that.

Pilot Knob has the feel of a laboratory, where one-third of the students come from low-income families but many others have parents who hold high-income jobs for nearby companies such as Lockheed Martin and Northwest Airlines and who frequently drop in to help with math lessons.

Benson and Haugen both tout the school's racial makeup (53 percent white students, 19 percent black, 18 percent Asian and 9 percent Hispanic) as a microcosm of the United States. Haugen said a recent fourth-grade concert showcased students speaking 10 languages.

"When I started here 11 years ago, I couldn't believe it," fourth-grade teacher Lucy Thompson said. "It really is like a city school, and I just hadn't seen that in Eagan. I realized how lucky we are to have this."

Finding inspiration

But Pilot Knob is still plagued by the same test-score gaps that confound many schools: 82 percent of its white students were proficient in reading on last year's Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests, compared to 52 percent of black students and 50 percent of Hispanic students.

To solve those problems, Benson goes back to the same strategy he's used since his first teaching job in L.A.: Get kids to dream, and then get them to read.

"I'd get them to get that dream, and then say, 'Here's the pathway,'" Benson said. "If you can read, you can learn about anything."

He's started a student newspaper at Pilot Knob, just as he has at all of his schools, to get kids writing for each other. He's started a monthly book club for kids and parents. And Thompson said Benson frequently drops in to classrooms to pair struggling kids with a book.

"He's either in the Interactive Media Center with kids, helping them choose a book, or he's sitting down with kids," Thompson said. "If a problem comes up with a student, he's already learned their names."

Benson talks frequently of making Pilot Knob a Blue Ribbon school. That's probably partially because of how competitive he is.

But he and Haugen also know that to win the award, Pilot Knob's minority students would have to make the kinds of test score gains that have been tough for many schools to achieve.

Which is exactly the kind of obstacle that gets Benson excited.

"Some of the athletic stuff I do is about pushing further than I think I can go," he said. "We tend to underestimate what we can do."

Ben Goessling • 651-298-1546