It’s a full circle moment which Ben Cortes never saw coming.
The Oakdale High School alum and newly appointed Fair Oaks Elementary School principal shared he didn’t grow up dreaming of a career in education. Actually, it was quite the opposite.
“I graduated high school saying I’m never going to school again,” Cortes recently shared.
“I was a trouble making kid. At my core it never felt like I was a trouble making kid, but I was young and dumb I guess,” he added. “Academically, I was pretty smart. I could just cruise and coast with minimal effort.”
Cortes first began his Oakdale education at the age of six as a Fair Oaks Elementary School Falcon. Later on, during his time at Oakdale High School, he was a three-sport athlete: football, basketball and baseball. Admitting to not establishing great relationships with teachers, Cortes noted he felt sports saved him during his time in school.
His first stop post-high school graduation was in the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) business, making good money and commuting with a friend every day to the Bay Area. As the grind of the commute began to weigh on him, he decided that wasn’t the best fit for the lifestyle he desired.
Returning to school, he began with an English class at Stanislaus State. Sharing that he still had a bit of a chip on his shoulder from his primary years in education, Cortes felt driven to prove he was indeed a good student.
What he describes as an instant connection with his English teacher driving him, he soon became drawn to reading and writing. This ultimately resulted in Cortes earning his English degree.
Quickly realizing he didn’t have a feeling of being driven to teach English as he initially had thought, he sat in on a friend’s Special Education Class.
“I loved it,” he said of the observation which resulted in his first career path in education. “I still love it.”
Cortes spent 10 years teaching Special Education at Oakdale Junior High School.
“The challenge of figuring out what I can do to reach that kid and help that kid,” he noted as what he loves about teaching special ed.
Cortes has also coached JV football at OHS where he was the head coach, as well as flag football, cross country and track and field at Oakdale Junior High. He was promoted to vice principal of Cloverland Elementary School five years ago, moving to the administrative side of the educational team.
The 2022-2023 school year marks his 16th year with OJUSD.
“I love the position of being a vice principal, because I sat on that (other) side of the desk,” he stated, chuckling over his own prior visits to the principal’s office.
Now, as Fair Oaks principal, Cortes shared he feels it helps him connect with the kids.
“It doesn’t mean they’re a bad kid,” he said of the students sitting on the other side of the desk. “It means they made a mistake and they can fix it.”
Stepping in to the ultimate campus leadership role, the former Falcon said he’s excited for the challenges, the issues and the opportunities. He describes himself as a servant leader with a desire to help people be the best they can be: students, staff and parents.
“It’s got its own set of challenges,” Cortes said of day-to-day school operations returning to ‘normal.’ “I think we’re ready for that. I don’t profess to have all the answers, but what the short answer is, we’ve got to start exposing them back to normal life and school. I’m going to push for that, that’s for sure.”
Ultimately the newly appointed principal wants open communication, especially coming out of the past few years. He hopes that parents, as well as students embrace his openness to communication.
“I’m here because I care. I care about the kids, I care about the community,” he continued. “I say what I mean, I mean what I say. I’m very transparent. I listen as much as I talk.”
In terms of priorities on the Falcon campus, he shared safety as a number one priority; ensuring a safe place where students can learn and grow.
“Obviously behind that, trying to produce good people,” he added of his goals. “You don’t have to be a straight A student to be a good person.”
Cortes also said he feels it’s empowering to now be in a place where he can help a student struggling as he once did.
“It might not happen this year for that kid, or next year, but eventually it will click,” he said.