SCHENECTADY -- Aaron Bochniak wasn’t the best student growing up in Amsterdam, he readily admits.
Speaking from his home office in Colonie on Thursday, Bochniak, who last week was appointed acting superintendent of Schenectady City School Districy, recalled his days as a less-than-ideal student. He said he skated through school – some might have called him lazy, he said – and failed to exert himself in class.
“I was a lost student in Amsterdam; I was the kid who fell between the cracks,” he said. “I wasn’t the best student, I wasn’t engaged. It was because I fell between the cracks.”
But he had a Spanish teacher who refused to give up on him, who refused to see him fall short of his potential. That teacher helped change his life, he said.
“If it wasn’t for a teacher who saw more in me than I saw in myself, I wouldn’t be here now, and that’s why I wanted to become a teacher,” Bochniak said.
Bochniak graduated in the Amsterdam High School Class of 1991 -- “barely by the skin of my teeth,” he said – before starting classes at Schenectady County Community College, where school continued to be a struggle for him. While working at a local grocery store, Bochniak ran into his old Spanish teacher, who again encouraged him.
“That same teacher saw me working a part-time job at a grocery store, that same teacher saw me and said, ‘Aaron, what are you doing?’” he recalled. “She pushed me and told me I could do better than I was doing; she pushed me.”
Bochniak refocused on school, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, with a Spanish concentration, at SUNY Plattsburgh. He said he felt at home when he settled onto the campus, and he has been working as an educator and administrator, in both higher education and K-12, ever since.
He taught elementary school on a military base near Plattsburgh; he held numerous administrative jobs at Siena College, managing campus programs, student activities and eventually the college’s Center for Extended Learning. He spent over a decade at Capital Region BOCES, holding jobs dealing with technology, student assessment and other duties.
And the once poor student has continued to rack up the degrees, earning his master’s degree in counselor education in Plattsburgh, finishing his school district leadership certification from the College of Saint Rose and completing a doctor of education from Sage College.
Now, in the middle of a global health crisis and unprecedented transition to remote teaching and learning, Bochniak has been charged with leading Schenectady city schools through a tumultuous time. Last week, after the Schenectady school board accepted the abrupt resignation of former superintendent Larry Spring, the board appointed Bochniak as acting superintendent.
Bochniak, working from his home office in Colonie, said his first week as acting superintendent was a “renewal for him” as he met with teachers and staff virtually who congratulated him on the position and, in many cases, introduced themselves for the first time.
“Everyone I’m hearing from, it just reiterates to me that we are on the right path,” he said. “I think it’s been a week of renewal for me to have a chance to connect to people.”
During his decade of work for BOCES he supported the work of many area districts, including Schenectady. But he said it sometimes felt like working on the fringes. When the job opened in Schenectady, he felt like he would be a good fit. He has long supported the district’s equity mission and connects with the struggles many Schenectady students face.
“When you talk about living paycheck to paycheck, it was probably worse than that,” Bochniak said of growing up in Amsterdam.
His mom worked in a factory, and his dad pursued a litany of different jobs, including selling insurance, running a bar and owning vending machines. Neither had a college degree. Bochniak said the district’s goal of supporting all its students includes those students who don’t readily present themselves for help or raise their hand in class or even draw focus because of behavior. Those students, like all students, he said, need someone they can connect with – like that Spanish teacher who will believe in them even more than they believe in themselves.
“When we say we are looking at improving education outcomes for all students, there are also the kids who aren’t doing something to get attention, who are flying under the radar, and I was one of them,” he said.