Principal Aaron Gillaspie with his students at Brilla Preparatory Academy.
Principal Aaron Gillaspie with his students at Brilla Preparatory Academy.
Principal Aaron Gillaspie with his students at Brilla Preparatory Academy.

Former fullback brings formula for success to Mott Haven kids

At 6’2 and 250 lbs., first-year principal Aaron Gillaspie stands out at Brilla College Preparatory on E. 144th St. in Mott Haven. He moves quickly through the school corridors, showing no sign of the numerous leg injuries he suffered during his days playing college football and high school lacrosse.

A few years ago, Gillaspie shed his varsity jacket for khaki pants and a button-down shirt. The former University of Nebraska fullback became principal at Brilla in September, a few months after his 26th birthday.

“I think I’ve surrounded myself with people who’ve mentored me and coached me to be where I’m at today,” Gillaspie said. “It’s what I see in my teachers too—raw talent that just wants to be better.”

Two hundred kindergartners and first-graders attend Brilla, one of 20 new schools in the Bronx this year. So far, parents are excited about the independent charter school and its young principal.

“He’s a prodigy, he’s a genius,” said Linda Borrero, 49, whose daughter, Juliana Vasquez is a first grader at Brilla. “I’m telling my husband, ‘He’s 26 years old! Can you believe that, Hon?’”

Other parents agreed, Gillaspie’s lack of experience is barely noticeable .

“He gives confidence to the kids and he makes the kids feel like they need to be at the school,” said Kenneth Freeman, whose son, Jahquai, attends Brilla.

Halfway into the school year, Brilla’s 97 percent attendance rate puts it far ahead of other schools in Mott Haven. District 7 has one of the lowest attendance rates in the five boroughs, 87 percent, according to figures from the city’s education department.

Last spring Brilla received 500 applications from parents for the first class. The school selects students through a random lottery process. Since then, hundreds more have been added to the waiting list, Gillaspie estimates.

A competitive faculty is the key to maintaining high participation among students, he said. He hired 22 teachers and staff members from a pool of 2,000 applicants.

“You hire people who are hungry…who are never satisfied,” Gillaspie said. “We’re harder to get a job at than Google, or to get into Harvard.”

The rookie principal says he tries to apply some of the same ideals to running a school as he did to running with a football.

“Whatever I do, I’ve got to be the best at—it’s my competitive nature,” he said. “As a first-year teacher, I set some goals that most people would say, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ ”

Before starting Brilla, Gillaspie taught seventh grade at a Brooklyn charter school as part of the Teach for America program. When all of his students passed the state regents math exam in 2011, his first year teaching, skeptics told him he was lucky. A year later, 100 percent of his students passed the exam again.

Born in Nebraska and raised in Colorado, Gillaspie earned All-State honors in high school for lacrosse, before attending the University of Nebraska, where he made the football team as a walk-on. While playing there, he befriended lineman Matt Slauson, a former Jet who now plays for the Chicago Bears. Slauson fondly recalls how Gillaspie got on the starters’ nerves by hitting hard during team practices.  He said his former teammate’s success in education stems from the same spirit.

“It doesn’t surprise me a whole lot because of how hard the guy works,” Slauson said.

After graduating from Nebraska, Gillaspie took the teaching position in Brooklyn to be near his fiancée, from whom he has since divorced. But Gillaspie stayed in the city to see his vision of starting the new school through.

“I knew there was a bigger calling and bigger reason why I was here,” he said, adding that Mott Haven is home to much undiscovered talent he hopes to help uncover. “We’re not here to change this community. We’re here to help expose what they already have in a better light.”

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