Below a painted sign reading “Entering Wolf Pack Territory,” Basic High School graduates mill about the heated pavement in their shining blue caps and gowns. Their principal, Gerald Bustamante, knows how they feel.
A 1994 Basic graduate, Bustamante, 41, came full circle this spring when he accepted his alma mater’s top position. Bustamante was previously the principal of Global Community High School. He now walks the grounds of his past in a daily survey of the school’s future. Those who know him say there’s no one better equipped to do so.
“We’ve always been a part of the community, so to see Gerald go back and give back like that is amazing,” said Bustamante’s sister, Maria Bustamante Szydelko.
Basic, 400 Palo Verde Drive, was the first high school in Henderson when it opened in 1942 across from Henderson City Hall before moving to its current location in 1973. Bustamante recalled its friendly environment when he began his freshman year in 1990.
“Being a part of this community growing up and coming into the high school, being a minority also, I had to learn to navigate,” Bustamante said. “I think some people are able to on their own, but then others may not have learned how to do that. That’s where school comes in.”
Bustamante grew up the youngest of three children to Henderson parents Juan and Yolanda Bustamante who emigrated from Mexico. While Bustamante’s father worked 15 hours a day at the Nevada Test Site, Bustamante’s sister, Maria, attended parent-teacher conferences as a translator for their mother.
To honor his sister’s dedication to their family, Bustamante established a college scholarship in her name for Henderson students in 2014. The Maria Bustamante Szydelko Inspiration Scholarship awards $500 to current Hispanic seniors of Basic and Global Community High School. Applicants must submit a 200-300 word essay on how they have or intend to inspire others, as well as a resume and unofficial transcript, and must be planning on attending college or trade school. Students can apply at thepef.academicworks.com/opportunities.
“Gerald cares about the students,” Szydelko said. “He cares about the community. I saw him moving up, and I told him, ‘This is you. This is meant for you.’”
Not everyone pictured Bustamante becoming a principal, he said. Although he excelled on the Basic baseball team, he was an average student. He teases his former Spanish teacher, Anita Medina Wong, whom he affectionately calls “Señora Wong,” about giving him a C his senior year. Wong, who is in her 34th year at Basic and teaches Advanced Placement Spanish, recalls Bustamante as a native Spanish speaker.
“I said, ‘No, Mr. Bustamante, I do not give students grades. They earn them,’” Wong said, chuckling.
Wong was contemplating retirement when Bustamante was hired, especially since school started the year with no principal. Assistant principals ran the show until Bustamante arrived, Wong said.
“The funny thing is that once everybody found out I was his teacher, they all came after me, saying, ‘What’s he like? What’s he like?’ and I remembered a 15-year-old,” Wong said. “I had these recollections of seeing him in a letterman jacket … but I’ve had so many students, it gets hard to remember.
“When I first saw him, it was very surreal because he was an adult, but for a minute I still saw the boy,” Wong said. “It was like I got to experience firsthand the accomplishments of one of my students.”
The first action Bustamante took was to implement a new mantra for students: “Be You. Be Strong. Be Great.”
“A part of me was like ‘If I have to go, which I will, I’d like him to give me my walking papers,’” Wong said, wiping away a few stray tears.
During the last week of school for the spring 2017 graduates, a slideshow documenting students’ achievements was projected in the hallway opposite Basic’s entrance — another one of Bustamante’s creative implementations. Bustamante glides past it in a Basic blue polo as he embarks on his midday march through the hallways.
After playing college baseball, Bustamante grappled with the idea of becoming a firefighter, but his eyesight was a concern. Ultimately his desire to help others encouraged Bustamante to pursue education. His first job with the Clark County School District was a library aid, “the lowest-paying job” in the field, but Bustamante was determined.
Since returning to Basic, he has remembered the importance of tradition and letting students discover who they are with a support system around them.
“My philosophy is to remove obstacles from my teachers so they can become successful,” Bustamante said. “For me, it’s ‘How can I allow everyone — my teachers, my students, the community — to feel empowered?”