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Higher Calling

The new leader at Syracuse schools started in the district three decades ago as a kindergarten teacher’s aide. He found out education was his true passion and stuck around. In July he was appointed interim school superintendent

By Aaron Gifford

A video of Alicea jumping rope with elementary school students on the first day of school this year went viral, generating nearly 1,000 likes on a Facebook page.
A video of Alicea jumping rope with elementary school students on the first day of school this year went viral, generating nearly 1,000 likes on a Facebook page.

Jaime Alicea planned a brief stop in Syracuse one summer to visit relatives. His intentions then were to return home to Puerto Rico to pursue a career in law, but he encountered a detour or two and stayed for more than just a few Central New York winters. That was 34 years ago.

What began as a temporary job as a kindergarten teacher’s aide evolved into a rewarding career that saw Alicea grow his experience as an educator through multiple grade levels before enjoying success as a principal and then as an administrator. Today, he oversees the entire Syracuse City School District. That’s not how the interim superintendent envisioned his trip here would turn out.

“My grandparents said why don’t we at least stay until Christmas,” Alicea, 57, said with a laugh. “The winter, well….that didn’t discourage me.”

Alicea, formerly the chief operating officer, was appointed to lead the district in July after Superintendent Sharon Contrearas left here for a position in the Guilford County, N.C., school district. In a recent interview, he talked about his childhood in Puerto Rico, his career as an educator, his hobbies and interests, and what he does to continue feeling young and energized.

The middle of three children, Alicea grew up in what he described as a “typical and happy” Puerto Rican household. They lived in a small town on the eastern end of the island. His mother, Petra, worked in the cafeteria at the neighborhood school. His father, Jaime, was a construction worker, using public transportation to get to his job and working 13 hours a day, seven days a week. At that time, he said, many families in Puerto Rico got by on less than $900 a month. Alicea’s extended family was very close, and helped each other out with home repairs, gardening and whatever chores needed to be done.

“Cousins, grandparents — we had a large family and we all helped each other out,” he said. “Dad always had a list of things for us to do.”

Alicea attended a school where the student to teacher ratio was 36 to one. His second grade teacher, Mrs. Rivera, left quite an impression and set a very high standard that he would later duplicate. She commuted from four towns away but was always on time. And she rarely took a break, making herself available during lunch and recess. Even on Saturdays, Mrs. Rivera volunteered to take the students hiking or fishing, and she often organized athletic field day events.

“When she taught,” Alicea recalled. “We were all engaged.”

In high school, Alicea was fortunate enough to have a teacher who challenged students not just to write essays, but to illustrate their points with performances and other unique ways of communicating. He also had an English teacher, Ms. Pedraza, who always pushed the kids to work harder and not be discouraged by the challenges of learning a second language.

“She said you either use it or you lose it [English],” Alicea said.

Interim superintendent Alicea talking to a high school student in Syracuse.
Interim superintendent Alicea talking to a high school student in Syracuse.

Alicea tried his hand at construction and actually liked it, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that he didn’t want to do that the rest of his life. He loved the idea of working in public schools, but his teachers challenged the students to set their sights on higher-paying careers in medicine or law. So Alicea enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico, earning a degree in labor relations with plans to continue on to law school.

“As great as they [teachers] were, they encouraged all of us to do something else,” he said.

In the early summer of 1982, Alicea’s cousins flew him and his grandparents to Syracuse for a visit. The family enjoyed the trip, and it wasn’t difficult to talk the young college graduate into staying for a few more months. He thought it would be a great chance to improve his English, which would definitely help his law career later on in life. He took English classes at Onondaga Community College. To earn extra money, he signed on as a kindergarten teacher’s aide at Seymour Elementary School.

Diane Canino-Rispoli, the principal who hired the young upstart, said Alicea is the type of person who saw education as a calling. His genuineness, work ethic and sense of humor benefited the district right away.

“He’s been successful because he’s out in the field, not just in the office,” she explained. “In the morning he might be at one of the elementary schools jumping rope with the kids, and later in the day he’s across town on one of the field trips with high schoolers. He’s the kind of guy who never gives up, and he’s always that person who goes the extra mile for the kids.”

For Alicea, one of the first things that really stood out about New York state schools was the level of generosity. Pencils, paper and other materials were provided for needy students, and most of the textbooks were less than four years old. He was also impressed that the school made nurses and psychologists available to children at school.

He called his first year in the classroom a great experience, and later elected to become a full-time kindergarten teacher, a job he excelled at for five years.

“They were great kids and it was a great experience,” he said. “I never imagined I’d be a kindergarten teacher. I still remember every single one of my kids.”

Alicea moved onto teaching fifth graders and then sixth graders, and enjoyed teaching some of the same children he first taught in kindergarten. Borrowing the techniques of some of his own elementary school educators, Alicea challenged the students to go beyond just writing book reports, inviting them to prepare skits or presentations and actually take pride in communicating what they’ve learned.

School leaders saw tremendous potential in the young teacher, and eventually encouraged him to become a principal. Alicea accepted the challenge, because one of his favorite parts about working in a school was forging partnerships with parents and faculty members.

He helped Canino-Rispoli deliver the Seymour Elementary School graduation speech in Spanish. On his own initiative, he wrote the speech, recorded it on a cassette tape and then worked with the principal over the course of several weeks before the commencement ceremony.

Huntington“This was his idea, Canino-Rispoli said, “and it was a great one. We laughed a lot because I was learning the syllables but I didn’t remember the words I spoke. He wouldn’t let me use the same speech again. He did it for me every year.”

A few years into his career with the district, Alicea went back to school part-time and earned a master’s degree in foreign language education from Syracuse University in 1988. Alicea thought he would become a Spanish teacher, but instead pursued a career as an administrator.

Four years later, he accepted an administrative internship position in the district where he was assigned to provide support to members of the class of 1992. He was there to help with course work, help them pass the Regents exam, and work to iron out family or transportation issues for students in low-income households.

“My role was to make them understand that education is the best way to get out of poverty,” he said. “I made myself available, letting them know I was there to support them so they could see there were better opportunities. Poverty is a barrier, but it’s a barrier that can be overcome.”

Alicea continued his work at Fowler as the high school principal, working from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. most days. During the day, he worked with teachers and students. At night, he worked with parents in the community who went back to school to get their GEDs. Based on that program’s success and the increasing demand to help the community, the Community School of Central New York was born. The Dr. King School was opened in the evenings to provide continuing education programs for hundreds of parents. The school also hosted a neighborhood health clinic and clothing donation programs.

“We were proud to be part of the first of this type of program for Central New York,” Alicea said.

By this time Alicea was immersed in his career, never stopping to think about getting married and starting a family. As he saw it, work in education was his life partner and the school district was his family. At one point he did consider a more lucrative position as an administrator in a wealthier downstate school district, but couldn’t bring himself to leave Syracuse.

“I have friends in Long Island, but I felt I was committed to this district,” he said. “I also felt like Syracuse was a great place. I felt like I should really be here.”

Under Alicea’s watch, Fowler, a high school that serves one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York state, improved its Regents exam passing rate from 40 percent to 90 percent. That task took a tremendous amount of work, and so many teachers, parents and the students themselves should share the credit. But, he cautioned, the formula for success was quite simple.

“It’s just about believing in the potential that kids have,” he said.

Alicea’s work at Fowler earned him a promotion. He advanced to the rank of deputy superintendent and then became chief operating officer, overseeing facilities and operations, health services, food and nutrition, building security, and transportation.

Beyond the district, he served on the board of the Rosamond Gifford Foundation. In 2006, he received a community service award from the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1996, he was recognized as the Latino Educator of the Year from the Association of Neighbors Committed to Latino Advancement.

According to published reports, Alicea has expressed an interest in being appointed to the superintendent position permanently. The Syracuse Board of Education hasn’t made a decision yet.

Despite advances in the psychology of education that helps professionals to better understand the thinking and behavior patterns of young people, and the staggering improvements in technology that makes school more engaging and interesting for students, teachers face the same challenges they faced 40 years ago, Alicea explained. If anything, he added, electronic devices and social media can be a major distraction to kids. And the gap between rich and poor has only grown larger.

“I don’t think people, especially those outside of a city school district, realize how much we are juggling,” Alicea said. “If we’re going to be successful, we have to have that rapport with families. It goes beyond standing in front of a classroom. We’re teaching them about life, too. There’s no immediate gratification. It might take four years; it might take eight years.”

Alicea and other administrators are focused on student achievement, the results of state exams and college admissions. The interim superintendent has also worked to expand a partnership program between Hillside and Onondaga Community College to provide a support network to Syracuse city district graduates who continue on to OCC.

Alicea loves the longwork days and still finds plenty of ways to enjoy himself outside of a school environment.

He spends a few weeks each summer visiting his parents in Puerto Rico, and they come up to Central New York about once a year. To stay healthy and feeling younger than his 57 years, Alicea enjoys weekend hiking trips in the Adirondacks and walking around the city. Each day, he finds time to walk two to three miles. One of his favorite locations for that regimen is the Nottingham High School track.

“I recharge my batteries,” he said. “Helps me to forget I’m over 55!”

He also enjoys traveling, with stamps on his passport from Spain, Brazil, Italy and Cuba. During his travels domestically and abroad, Alicea always has his camera. Outside of education, photography is his favorite passion.

“A picture captures a moment in time,” Alicea said. “You can always go back and look at it. It’s history.”

During a previous academic year, Alicea won a photography contest for school district employees. His winning piece was a picture of a watermelon that appeared to be smiling. It was later featured at the Everson Museum. Carol Terry, a retired fine arts coordinator for the district, said the superintendent eye for photography is a reflection of his personality.

“I equate it to his ability to listen,” Terry explained. “He takes a lot in before making decisions, and he gets input from others. He formulates all of it before making a decision. That takes great vision.”

Getting To Know The Super
  • Name  Jaime Alicea
  • Position  Interim superintendent at Syracuse City School District. Appointed in July.
  • Age  57
  • Marital status  Never married.
  • Education  Bachelor’s degree in labor relations from the University of Puerto Rico, and a master’s degree in foreign language education from Syracuse University.
  • Career  Entirely in the Syracuse City School District — teacher’s assistant and then teacher at Seymour Elementary School; principal at Fowler High School; deputy superintendent; chief operations officer, interim superintendent.
  • Career Goals  According to published reports, Alicea has expressed interest in being appointed to the Syracuse City School District superintendent position permanently. But either way, when asked what he hopes to accomplish before retirement: “More kids graduating. More kids going to college. More kids finishing college. More families escaping poverty.”
  • Hobbies  Walking, hiking in the Adirondacks, travelling abroad, and photography.
  • Something people may not know about him  A video of him jumping rope with elementary school students on the first day of school this year went viral, generating nearly 1,000 likes on a Facebook page.