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Schools Chief Keeps Them Coming Back

Education: Yolanda Benitez, Ventura County's first Latina superintendent, has gotten many ex-students to return as teachers.

September 02, 2002|AMANDA COVARRUBIAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A second-generation Mexican American whose mother picked crops to support her family, Rio School Supt. Yolanda Benitez is hard at work planting her own seeds in this tiny Ventura County farming community.

Through the years, Benitez, a whirlwind of energy at 51, has prodded, encouraged and cajoled at least 25 former students and acquaintances to become teachers and work in her district. One of four Latino superintendents in the county, Benitez is a role model and a reminder to the children of El Rio that their lives can reach beyond the fields, supporters say.

The 4,000 students in Rio's three elementary schools and one junior high are 80% Latino. When Benitez joined the district in 1995, the nearly all-white faculty and staff hardly reflected the student body. Today, 76 of the district's 178 teachers are Latino.

With a mix of enthusiasm and unwavering optimism packed into her slight, 5-foot-2 frame, Benitez loves to preach the gospel of education and self-confidence.

"They can do anything they want to do," Benitez says of her students. "Anything is possible for them, regardless. They've heard too many times, 'You can't, you can't, you can't.' "

Supporters say Benitez's passion is infectious.

"She's such a go-getter. She'll fight for children all the way," said April McCarthy, who worked as an instructional assistant in the Rio School District for 23 years.

McCarthy met Benitez in 1995 as a member of the California School Employees Assn. negotiating team.

"She was such a pest. I was working on [a teaching degree] then, but she was pushing it to go a little faster," McCarthy said.

McCarthy, 47, grew up in El Rio, a sliver of a town wedged between Oxnard's suburban sprawl and the bone-dry Santa Clara River. She attended its public schools and will teach in her own classroom for the first time this month at Del Rio School.

"She kept telling me I was a natural and she wanted me to be a schoolteacher in her district," said McCarthy, who attended college part time for 11 years. "Every time she would come on campus, she would say, 'This is my future teacher, this is my future teacher.' "

Benitez lived part of her childhood in the garage of her aunt's house in El Monte. Her father, whom she has met only once, abandoned her family the day she was born in Santa Paula. Her mother, Maria Benitez, sorted walnuts and picked crops to support Yolanda and her older brother, Refugio.

Benitez said she always wanted to be a teacher but received little encouragement from those she encountered in school in the 1950s. "You Mexicans will never get anywhere," she remembered a teacher telling her while accusing Yolanda of cheating.

Yet there was her sixth-grade teacher, whose name she has since forgotten, who said, "Leave her alone; she's a smart kid."

For the young self-starter, who earned straight A's on her report cards, that was all the encouragement she needed. The words left a lasting impression on Benitez.

"I don't think I want to take the chance and have a negative impact on a kid. Think about how many kids are destroyed by negative comments," Benitez said. "Kids need someone to reaffirm their dreams."

After graduating from Rosemead High School, Benitez attended Cal State Los Angeles on a federal scholarship intended to encourage students to become bilingual teachers. She taught in public schools in Los Angeles and Riverside before becoming a principal in Fillmore. After an eight-year run as an assistant superintendent in Port Hueneme, she was hired at Rio as the county's first Latina superintendent.

Benitez, who is married and has three adult children, seldom strays from her self-imposed schedule of visiting a school four days a week and reading to a class. She greets kids and teachers alike, with hugs, and addresses them as "mijo" and "mija," Spanish terms of endearment for "my daughter" and "my son."

"I need to see children," Benitez said. "That's what it's all about."

Caroline Ramirez, 25, who grew up in El Rio and attended its public schools, returned last year as a substitute science teacher after graduating from Seattle University. Benitez was a family friend who encouraged Ramirez's interest in teaching even as she transferred from Boston University to Seattle to be closer to home.

"Every time I saw her at family events, she told me she wanted me to come back," Ramirez said. "She thought it was amazing that someone went to a school like that [Boston University] and wanted to come back."

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