When describing his past, Valley Streamer John Frias said he would often tell people he grew up in Harlem, before Starbucks.
Coming of age during the crack epidemic and skyrocketing crime rates in New York City in the 1980s, before the coffee chain spread to nearly every corner of the metropolis, Frias, 37, said he knows what it’s like to be a child in a troubled area, with troubled households all around him.
It was that experience, he said, that has informed much of his career in education up to this point — particularly at the beginning, when he taught primarily in high-need city schools.
“The things I saw and experienced as a child, I saw in them,” he recalled of his pupils at the Ryer Avenue School in the Bronx, where he began teaching in 2004. “I saw myself in those students.”
Now, after more than 15 years in education, Frias will take the reins of Wheeler Avenue Elementary School as principal, replacing Dr. Gayle Steele, who, after a seven-year tenure, is moving to the Huntington School District.
“He’s always been a leader amongst the staff, and that’s one of his strengths,” Steele said of Frias, who worked under her in 2017 as a fifth-grade teacher at Wheeler, and as a math coach for District 13, spearheading efforts to formalize math curriculum training for its teachers.
“He was always willing to help others take that next step, set the bar high for his students, and for himself,” Steele said.
“We are thrilled that Mr. Frias is returning to our district,” Superintendent Dr. Constance Evelyn said in a statement announcing the move, “and we are certain that his leadership will continue to advance the exceptional educational experience offered at the Wheeler Avenue School.”
Frias studied criminal justice at Buffalo State College, planning to pursue a career in law enforcement, and in 2002, at age 19, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
But ultimately, he said, “my path was different.”
While spending his college years working under a former high school teacher of his at the Fresh Air Fund, a camp for inner-city children from low-income households, Frias discovered his love for mentoring.
Before his first and only deployment, he decided to join the New York City Teaching Fellows, a program that provides on-the-job teacher training for professionals with backgrounds outside of education.
Through the program, he was assigned to the Bronx’s Ryer Avenue as a third-grade teacher in 2004. The school was often overcrowded, and a number of the students there, Frias noted, were either homeless, in the foster system or from single-parent households.
The boys in particular, he noticed, lacked male role models in their lives who looked like them. They had a need, Frias realized, that he was able to meet.
“Working in the Bronx, I was able to see myself in a position to make a difference,” he said. “I remember being one of those kids.”
While teaching at Ryer Avenue, he was called away on a military deployment, and after suffering a leg injury, was medically discharged from the Marines in 2007. Upon his return, he became a fifth-grade teacher at Ryer Avenue.
As Frias moved ahead in his teaching career, earning a master’s degree in education that year from Mercy College, his family was growing, and in 2009 he, his wife and four children moved from their home on 142nd Street in Harlem to Queens.
Seeking to work closer to home, Frias left Ryer Avenue, and in 2013 he began teaching math at the Ronald H. Brown Elementary School in South Ozone Park, and he and his family moved again to Valley Stream.
While at Brown, Frias set his sights on becoming a school administrator, and began working toward the required certifications. He is now seeking his doctorate in education at Liberty University.
By chance, however, while at a parent-teacher meeting at Willow Road Elementary School, which his son attends, in late 2016, Frias heard of an open math teaching position at Wheeler Avenue.
“I wasn’t looking to make a lateral move on Long Island to another teaching position,” he said, “but I thought I’d give it a shot.”
He worked at Wheeler and throughout District 13 for a year before an assistant principal position opened at Hewlett Elementary School, and he applied. Frias had planned to continue in that role for some time, he said, but when he heard that Steele was moving to another district, and because his children were still attending Valley Stream schools, he decided to return to Wheeler.
Working in an increasingly diverse community such as Valley Stream, he said, reminded him of his early days as a New York City schools teacher.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Frias said of his rapid rise from teacher to administrator since leaving Ryer Avenue, but he is excited to return to Wheeler, where he said he would like to foster an environment of curiosity for students, and one in which they will want to learn.
Steele said she was not surprised at Frias’s success in the education world.
“He’s always looking for ways to improve himself so he can effectively help others,” she said, and expressed confidence that Frias will succeed in his new role.
“On a personal note,” Steele said, “it was hard enough to leave Wheeler because it’s just a great place to be, but I feel so much better because [the students] are going to be in such capable hands.”