Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Making a push to be part of the neighborhood

Broad Acres principals, staff walk the streets of school’s community

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Broad Acres students (left to right) Joshimar Hernandez, 12, Surafel Hunachew, 11, and Jesus Gutierrez, 11, listen to Michael Bayewitz (right), the new principal at Broad Acres Elementary School, during a neighborhood walk in the Northwest Park apartment complex. The walk featured students and faculty members Aug. 22 in Silver Spring.
Two ice cream trucks drove through Northwest Park one afternoon last week without enticing any of the children playing outside. Instead, the students in the Silver Spring neighborhood had already been drawn to two good-humored men who are making a point to spend time in the neighborhood.

Michael Bayewitz and Luis San Sebastian, the new principal and assistant principal at Broad Acres Elementary School, greeted, joked and laughed with students they met along their second community walk this summer. Teachers, split up in six groups of nine, canvassed the neighborhood, handing out bilingual information packets to parents and hugs and pencils to students.

‘‘If people know you feel comfortable in their environment, they’ll feel comfortable in your environment,” Bayewitz said one week earlier.

In less than a summer on the job, Bayewitz and San Sebastian have made themselves right at home at Broad Acres and want parents and students to do likewise.

‘‘We’re really trying to bring community activities and community things to the building so we are the center of the community,” San Sebastian said.

Both men know the statistics: The student body at Broad Acres is 100 percent minority, including 60 percent Hispanic, according to Montgomery County Public Schools data. More than 85 percent of students participate in the Free and Reduced Meals plan. The school did not meet the state’s Adequate Yearly Progress requirements last year.

Bayewitz, 35, the former principal at Luxmanor Elementary School in Rockville, and San Sebastian, 46, previously an assistant principal at Gaithersburg Middle School, knew their new jobs would mean more work, more stress and less time with their families. In the end, though, both said Broad Acres was an offer they could not refuse.

‘‘It’s a really unique set of circumstances, and at the same time an incredible opportunity,” Bayewitz said. ‘‘I knew I’d always regret it if I didn’t go for it.”

‘‘You don’t work in Montgomery County Public Schools and not know about Broad Acres in terms of the challenge, the opportunity and the wealth of strategies,” added San Sebastian, who is fluent in Spanish. ‘‘If it can work here ... you can take it anywhere.”

Bayewitz was appointed principal in May, at which point he called San Sebastian about the assistant principal opening. Both men live in Olney and met doing clean-up duty following an event at the preschool their children attended.

Once San Sebastian accepted Bayewitz’s offer, the two sprang into action. They spent a day at Broad Acres at the end of last school year to meet students and staff. They joined parents for three community breakfasts, two of which they have hosted at the school. And they have twice walked through Northwest Park, the neighborhood that surrounds Broad Acres and is home to almost all of the school’s students.

The walks were set up in part through Weed and Seed, a federal program to help neighborhoods eliminate crime activity and start community programs. On their first walk one evening in July, Bayewitz and San Sebastian spent two hours talking to parents and students.

Emie Cadet, a community leader for Weed and Seed and a 14-year Northwest Park resident, said parents enjoy the meet-and-greets.

‘‘There’s a relationship,” Cadet said as she watched the Broad Acres staff walking last week. ‘‘You already feel comfortable with them. You’re not going to be scared.”

Kelly Seales, who has a kindergartner and fifth-grader at Broad Acres, agreed.

‘‘It’s really nice that they all came around,” she said. ‘‘They’ve started off very well.”

Cadet’s three children attended Broad Acres, and she was part of the committee questioning principal candidates. Bayewitz impressed her immediately, she said.

‘‘As soon as I interviewed him, I said, ‘He’s the one,’” she said. ‘‘He was ready for the community.”

Bayewitz, in turn, wants to make sure students are ready for upper-level high school classes and eventually college.

More than half of the fifth-graders at Broad Acres will be taking sixth-grade math this year, and Bayewitz hopes to eventually offer seventh-grade math at the school.

‘‘It’s very easy at a school like Broad Acres to get in the mindset of, ‘We’ve got to make AYP, we’ve got to meet the No Child Left Behind requirements or we’re going to be in trouble,’” Bayewitz said. ‘‘But at the same time, just meeting that minimum requirement is not good enough.”

Parents will be kept informed of developments through new monthly information meetings and the creation of a study circle, bringing them together with staff and students to discuss issues affecting Broad Acres.

After 90 minutes of walking outside, the faculty returned to Broad Acres to continue planning work. Some teachers were disappointed they did not see more people, but San Sebastian said just being out in the community can be effective.

‘‘The message, the buzz will get out,” he said.

‘‘We both think the work is really, really important,” Bayewitz said a week earlier. ‘‘It’s not very often that you really have a chance to make a difference in a life. There is just no doubt that we have that chance. And that’s awesome.”