As new associate principal, Benitez aims to ‘influence the minds that will change the world’

Associate Principal Rafael Benitez has joined the high school staff to replace Associate Principal Dana Deines, who retired last year. Prior to his job here, Benitez was an associate principal at Bunger and before that a middle school English teacher in the Waterloo school system. 

He said he was driven toward this job because he wanted to remain close to his wife and to provide a unique perspective and influence when decisions are made and to grow as a leader. Although he said change is challenging and takes time, Benitez will be taking small steps such as interacting with his students and growing as a person to help this school become more successful, safe and comfortable for all students. 

By connecting with his students every day, he plans to learn more about them and understand their needs and wants. 


What is your background?

I was born and raised in Muscatine, Iowa. I am a second-generation Mexican-American. My mother and her older siblings were the first in their family to come to the United States. My stepfamily is made up of African-Americans from Louisiana. I grew up in a Mexican and black household for most of my life. I have two black brothers and one sister who is Mexican and black. For those that know my wife at Holmes, Mrs. Benitez (Horstman), we know that she is white, so I have quite the blended family! 


Why did you choose this job?

This job had a number of opportunities for me. One, to be in the same district as my wife, Mrs. Benitez (Ms. Horstman) was too good to pass up. I was not necessarily looking for an administrative job right out of my master’s program; this position was brought to my attention, and the worst thing I could have done was not apply. Cedar Falls is one of the best districts in Iowa and continues to be a standard of excellence. No, Cedar Falls is not perfect, no district is, but where Cedar Falls is at and where it is going in the future, I want to be part of the movement. 


What were your intentions?

To provide a unique perspective and influence when decisions are made and to grow as a leader.


How does having you as our principal impact diversity?

I don’t think I was hired to check a box or to satisfy or connect to one particular student group, but I think being hired here challenges the status quo about what an educator or a principal looks like, not just because of my background, but also because of my age. It is pretty evident that if dressed in my casual clothing, I could pass off as a student. There are just a handful of Latino administrators in the state of Iowa and very few administrators in their 20s.  In August, all of the Cedar Falls CSD principals went to Des Moines for an annual administrative conference with most of the districts in Iowa represented, and it was quite obvious that I am one of the youngest administrators in Iowa. If anything, it shows people that hard work and dedication can take you places much quicker than what people expect out of you. 


Do you plan on increasing the number of black or different culture teachers?

We do have Mr. Llerena Gomez. There are a few teachers in the high school that are biracial as well. The goal to recruit and retain educators of color has been on my mind. I think what CAPS is doing with MIRAE is fantastic. It is important to note that hiring someone because of their background should not be the goal, but finding high-quality teachers with diverse backgrounds. I also believe that when people see a person of color as an educator, it is not simply to check off a box to seem inclusive or to satisfy that particular student population, but knowing that ALL students and staff will benefit from that educator. 


How much do you socialize with the students? Daily. I say hello to those I see in the hallway or in the cafeteria or the parking lot. When I was doing announcements, I thought it was awesome to hear that using my Spanish was appreciated. I get tons of compliments on my shoes, which are always positive. Many students had my wife as their teacher, so they have heard things about me. I try to seek out students in the classrooms or during school events before they come to the office. That does not always happen, but I still do my best. 


Are there any new events this year that you believe would help the school in a better way?

I know that we are having students of color assembly very soon. I am excited to help with that event. 


What is your solution toward bringing different races/backgrounds together? It is no easy solution. This will take a very long time to do, but creating a welcoming environment where conversations can occur is the initial step. When one can bring the conversation and provide their perspective, changes in mindset can occur for the better. Unfortunately, when diversity or inclusion is brought up, there is a label attached as trying to be politically correct, when in fact, it is a matter of doing what is right for all students. That is the part some people are willing or wanting to accept, that inclusion or advocation for students benefits all. I just have to ask questions, provide my perspective and see what resources are available to meet our students’ needs so our changes can occur. I would extend an invitation to those who see potential solutions to improve our schools to advocate and be willing to help make the changes needed.


What is the challenging part about being one of the associate principals? I find it difficult when a student comes into my office for the first time and it has to be a disciplinary response. I would like to have had the chance to meet with that student and get to know them. I am a firm believer that relationships drive education, so it has been an adjustment, to say the least. 


I gave up coaching football and basketball for this job and that is still a hard pill to take. I love sports. I played football and soccer in high school and rugby in college. Not being on the sidelines or on the court is something I miss dearly, but it was a necessary sacrifice.


Last but not least, names. In my last school, there were only five hundred people. Over here, it is nearly tripled. 


What’s your reaction to being in a school with mostly white staff and students?

I believe that diversity occurs beyond just race. Diversity can look different with socioeconomics, family structures, religious backgrounds and other personal beliefs. The more we have exposure to different walks of life, the better we all are because that leads to building empathy and understanding. What I do like and love is that I have felt accepted and respected by the community, school and students here. I think anyone from an underrepresented group has a small doubt in their head that they were selected for positions based on their background or would be viewed as a “token” rather than being selected for being the best applicant for that job. Cedar Falls has not made me feel like a token by any means. The district and the people have told me from the beginning that they are excited that I am here and have provided the avenues for me to grow as a leader. I am wanted and appreciated here in Cedar Falls.


What’s your motivation and passion for this job opportunity? 

My mom came to this country with her siblings and nothing else. Everything she has in her life, she has earned through hard work and integrity. I realized she gave up what she knew so I could have a better opportunity and I did not want to let her down. My mom always told me that education is the key to advancement. 


My passion with education stems from the people who told me that I could become more than what I imagined. I have a beautiful home, a phenomenal wife, a car and financial stability all because I took my education seriously and had people who supported me. If someone like me can make it, then anyone else can. Simply put, I am trying to give back what was given to me and to provide what I lacked in school.


Who do you plan to impact the most? 

That is a really good question. One of my core beliefs is that I will not change the world, but I will influence the minds that will change the world. With that being said, students are the ones I plan to impact. 


Are there any drastic changes about to be presented? 

The homecoming dance will be virtual. Just kidding. There are no drastic changes to my knowledge.


What’s your idea of a great education? 

Accessible, universal and relevant education to all students that prepare the whole student, not just the academics. 


How do you plan on helping the students? Since I am new here, my main goal is to listen and learn. I have been doing the best I can to formulate my own opinions and not let someone influence me how I should think or view something.

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