At first, a young Jaime Aquino didn’t want to move to New York City to launch his career as a bilingual elementary school teacher.
San Antonio Independent School District’s next superintendent wanted to stay in the Dominican Republic, close to his mom and everything he knew.
But with a little push from the dean of the Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo, Aquino applied for the position. A few months later, he heard that he got the job.
His initial reaction?
“That’s exciting. But, oh my God, how do I tell this to my mom?” he said. “There were a lot of tears.”
Aquino told his mom he could always come back if the job didn’t work out. But 35 years later, he’s still in the United States. On May 2 of this year, he officially became SAISD’s new leader.
The SAISD board of trustees voted April 11 to name Aquino the lone finalist for superintendent, seven months after Pedro Martinez vacated the position to lead Chicago Public Schools. Under state law, the board had to wait 21 days after naming Aquino as a finalist to hire him, which occurred on May 2. He started work the next day.
Classes begin August 16 across SAISD’s 90-plus campuses.
Aquino’s journey as an immigrant and a teacher uniquely prepared him for his next role as superintendent of SAISD, several board members said. In his 35 years in education, Aquino, 57, has served as a teacher, chief academic officer and deputy superintendent in some of the largest school districts in the country.
“It was the right time for him and his journey, and his journey aligned with the type of leader that SAISD needs at this point in time,” District 7 trustee Ed Garza said.
After working in New York City for several years, Aquino earned the distinction of New York State Bilingual Teacher of the Year in 1990. He went on to get a master’s degree in bilingual education and a doctoral degree in curriculum and teaching, both from Fordham University.
SAISD’s dual language program, which is now in 61 of almost 100 schools, is part of what attracted Aquino to the district.
“The way bilingual education was created in this country in the 1960s was from a compensatory mindset. It was to fix, and bilingualism is not a handicap but an asset to humanity,” he said. “I think all students, not only language minority students, but all students have the opportunity to become bilingual or why not multilingual.”
Aquino sees himself in the students of SAISD. About 90% of the district’s 46,000 students are Latino and 88% are economically disadvantaged. He said many children in San Antonio have a parent who’s an immigrant or are learning English, and that’s who he is.
“It’s really me, the kids who sit in the classrooms,” he said. “I think my journey of life is probably very similar to many of them.”
In New York, the superintendent recruited Aquino to become an administrator who trains teachers, but Aquino didn’t want to leave the classroom. He spent a year in the new position before returning to the classroom, where he stayed for about nine years teaching grades 4-6.
“I see myself dying in the classroom,” he told the superintendent in New York. “You’re going to have to drag my body out of the classroom.”
Eventually, other opportunities lured Aquino out of the classroom. From 2000 to 2005, he served as an administrator at Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut and then instructional superintendent for the New York City Department of Education. In October 2005, he started working as chief academic officer for Denver Public Schools, where he stayed until October 2009. He also served as deputy superintendent for Los Angeles Unified School District from June 2011 to January 2014.
This experience in large, urban districts that also have high rates of poverty among students convinced board members that Aquino was the right person to lead SAISD. Patti Radle, District 5 trustee, said Aquino understands how poverty impacts education.
“I feel like it’s been a struggle to convince society sometimes that just because somebody is poor it doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant. Poverty is not an obstacle to learning. It’s a challenge,” she said. “He has a real consciousness of that, and not just that he’s conscious of it, but he’s going to make sure that people understand that we will take no excuses for poverty. We are to educate the child, regardless of poverty.”
In August 2018, New York State Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia appointed Aquino as a distinguished educator to the Rochester City School District, where he worked until April 2020. Aquino conducted an intensive review of the district, which struggled with financial issues and low-performing schools, and developed a turnaround plan.
From April 2020 to July 2021, he served as senior vice president of Discovery Education, a K-12 digital curriculum provider, working with districts to support virtual instruction during the early days of the pandemic. Since then, he’s worked as a consultant for Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado and a charter school network in New York City.
Aquino’s classroom experience and passion for teaching resonated with not only board members but the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel. Alejandra Lopez, union president, met with Aquino and said she felt encouraged by his commitment to be present in schools. He even offered to substitute when there’s a need.
“What happens day in and day out in our schools needs to be at the forefront of decision makers’ minds, and the higher up you go in administration sometimes the further away you get from that experience,” she said. “But it seems like Jaime is committed to maintaining that tie to the classroom and to our schools.”
Both Aquino and the Alliance recognize the challenges the pandemic has brought public education. Once he officially starts, Aquino’s top priorities will be improving student academic achievement and enrollment and attendance, all of which have sharply declined in the past two years.
“We both recognize that the crisis in education right now is serious and that the only way to overcome it is through meaningful collaboration and partnership and shared decision making,” Lopez said.
School board President Christina Martinez said Aquino’s passion for education, impressive resume and classroom experience are the assets SAISD needs right now to recover from the crisis in education.
“As school board members, we’re very passionate. It’s a San Anto thing. It’s part of who we are,” she said. “We are passionate people, and we want that mirrored back in our leader. We want someone who gets just as happy and as excited and angry as we do.”
Radle echoed her fellow trustee: “We’re a pretty good match for one another.”