The students didn’t know that Marcus Sanfilippo had a history of hernias when he picked up the hula hoop last fall. Sanfilippo, Bunnell Elementary School’s principal since 2016, has had four surgeries to fix the hernias, and he’s always in danger of another one. It was worth the risk, though, to see the looks on the kids’ faces as he twisted on stage during an assembly to reward kids with positive behavior.
“I think I got seven seconds,” Sanfilippo said during an interview with the Palm Coast Observer Feb. 16 at the school. “The kids loved it. They talked about it for a few days, making fun of me,” he said with a laugh. “It’s those little moments that have such a big impact on our kids.”
Sanfilippo, who has been in education for two decades, married his high school sweetheart after they graduated from Flagler Palm Coast High School. He talked to the Observer about leadership and riding around campus on his electric scooter.
Tell me about your scooter.
All the walking around campus was difficult after the surgeries, so my secretary and bookkeeper surprised me with a scooter. They put a bell on it, and they decorate it for Halloween and Christmas. It’s nice. I work with great people.
What is the best advice you’ve received on being a great principal?
I’ve talked to many people who have done it before, and they said, “Model what you expect, and inspect what you expect.” It goes back to the idea of servant leadership.
I know [Indian Trails Middle School Principal Paul Peacock] mentioned [in his Q+A with the Observer], “Be humble.” It’s so true. If I want my teachers to call parents, I have to call parents. We take time out for teachers to do targeted instruction groups, so I’m on the substitute list, and if a teacher is absent, I’ll go and do instructional groups.
It’s leading from the front, not leading from behind.
Volunteers from the Police Athletic League recently helped beautify the school grounds. What does that kind of involvement mean to you?
PAL came to me and said, “How can we help you?” It brings joy in your life that people care about you enough to see an issue and help find a solution.
It’s humbling to see how Bunnell Elementary School is such a part of Flagler Schools history. There’s such an attachment because of that.
I have teachers that went to Bunnell Elementary School, and we have parents and grandparents that went here.
What is school spirit like at Bunnell Elementary School? How do you create a positive culture?
The culture is very family oriented — as in, the BES family. They look out for each other. When I was out for my surgery, the number of people who showed up to my house with food to provide meals — we almost had to turn people away.
You can tell they love each other. When people have birthdays or are sick, there are always people sharing things.
You create it by embracing it. You listen to your teachers and your support staff. Spending time with them during the day outside academic stuff, asking about their family, having those little moments, knowing them and their children on a first-name basis.
For some, people, that comes naturally.
Not to me.
How do you work on being friendly and asking about people’s lives outside of school?
Being intentional. Knowing that it works. You want to be successful, so you find those areas of weakness that you have. I write myself sticky notes or put reminders on my phone, to intentionally speak to people, to remind myself to be in the classrooms, on the recess fields, in the cafeteria, so the kids see me in a different role.
Does exceptional student education get enough attention at Bunnell?
It gets more attention than it has in the past few years. This year, yes.
I think we’ve noticed through the data that our students with disabilities were kind of plateauing — there was no real growth. So over the past two years, there has been a real focus on the ESE population.
We’re being allocated eight ESE support teachers. Next year, the goal is 11, with Title I funding.
The goal is to have more small group instruction.
In what ways are you a different principal today from when you started five years ago?
Somedays I think I’m better. I think I reflect more now on my strengths and weaknesses than I did when I first became a principal.
As a new principal, you’re eager, you have a vision, and you’re pushing forward, and now I hope that I have a better perspective of the needs of my school than I did when first became a principal.
What’s a need of the school you didn’t recognize when you first started?
In high school, a lot of the students’ special needs are already identified. In elementary school, you are just starting that documentation.
At a school like this, where 80% are on free and reduced lunch, how many kids are raising kids? How many sixth graders are raising our kindergartners? We have some who have parents to teach them right from wrong, and we have others with a single mom and a job, and seeing that in elementary school is pretty eye opening.
You were Teacher of the Year for Flagler Schools in 2007. How is teaching different today from what it was 13 years ago?
The standards for academic performance have increased. The mental health concerns of students also — our school system over the years has become more of a social program, as in we’re meeting more of the needs of our kids than just the academics.
Thirteen years ago, we were concerned about feeding kids. Now it’s the food side, the mental health side, plus more parenting than we’ve had in the past, with teachers putting on that role of how to be parental support. None of that is bad; it’s just more that is expected in our society from teachers.
How conscious are you of students’ circumstances at home?
We embrace them and show them love first thing. Every day is a clean slate. Meals that our students get — sometimes breakfast and lunch — are the only meals they’re getting.
We have to understand before we discipline. We have to make sure we know what aspects of the outside are impacting things in here.
We had a family here where the father passed, and there were a number of students that go here, so we ask, “In what ways can we support the family? How can we generate funds, food, gift cards, when the breadwinner just passed away?”
That’s another thing about Flagler Schools that is very positive: It’s a small enough district that all the principals communicate.
If a teacher doesn’t enforce the mask policy, what do you do?
I haven’t had that issue. I had a couple kids complain about a teacher, and we dealt with that teacher, but it was just a misunderstanding of the mask policy. Students, for the most part, wear their face coverings when they’re unable to social distance.
It’s what I reiterate every morning on announcements: We practice the three W’s: Watch our distancing, Wear a face covering, Wash our hands.
For adults, we make sure that we’re modeling these behaviors for our Bullpups each day.
You’re a graduate of Flagler Palm Coast High School. What are you doing at the elementary school level to help students stay on track to graduate themselves?
We look at students that have struggled in the past, that have been identified as potential retainees, and in lieu of retaining them, we put them in a high support class.
If a student is retained, it increases the probability of them dropping out of high school. The goal is to identify that student early enough so they can get supports early enough, so they are not on the path to dropping out.