Lily Spera says her management
experience at Target prepared her for
her administrative role at St. Ambrose School.
(Mike Matvey photo)
Lily Spera says her management experience at Target prepared her for her administrative role at St. Ambrose School. (Mike Matvey photo)

When Lily Spera talks to incoming parents about Catholic education, one word she uses a lot is family.

“The first thing that I tell my parents is this is an extended family,” said Spera, the new principal at St. Ambrose School in Latham. “Our teachers and our staff have the flexibility and time to really get to know these kids day-in and day-out. And they are really able to educate the whole child, to take care of the whole child, which gives it a very family-like feel. 

“These kids are like our kids and the parents (should) feel safe for their kids to be here because we are taking care of them the way they would be taking care of them.”

Spera, 30, loves seeing the excitement the kids bring to school everyday, such as when there are “light bulbs going off, when kids figure something out.” And even if the excitement leaves some of the kids crying at day’s end. (And no, it’s not what you think!)

“I love standing in the front lobby and watching kids run into the school building because they are just excited because they feel comfortable here, they feel safe, they feel loved,” Spera said. “And watching them not be so happy on the way out, whether they are crying or say they want to stay, that just gives me hope that this is the right place for them.”

Spera’s life has been intertwined with Catholic schools for as long as she can remember. She attended Holy Trinity School and Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie. 

“My parents made that sacrifice because it was something that they didn’t have and it was something that they wanted to give to my siblings and me,” she said. “They chose that education because of the closeness of the community and the spiritual and moral upbringing.” 

She always knew that she wanted to be a teacher but after earning an associate’s degree in childhood education and mathematics from Dutchess Community College and a Bachelor’s in childhood education and mathematics at SUNY New Paltz, she had difficulty finding a job and started working at Target and became an Executive Team Leader. Looking back on it, Spera — who lives in Ballston Spa with her husband, Paul, and their two daughters Sofia, 11, and Stella, 5 — says that experience prepared her for her future. 

“Target was such a great company to start working for because they really taught you how to be a leader. The way that they did interviews and the way they choose candidates was really based on your personality and not so much the experience you bring to the table,” Spera said. “Part of that was learning how to be a compassionate and organized leader. So I knew going into my (administrative) role here, because of Target, I had these certain skills; especially communicating and listening.”

Target set the template for her as a manager and administrator, but it was a phone call from Terri McGraw, then-principal at St. Ambrose, that changed her life.

“I couldn’t find a teaching job until Terri called me for the middle-school math position in August 2014 and she and I sat in her office and it was the most amazing chat that I ever had. She really opened the door for me into not just the education world but the Catholic Education world and now it’s led to my two worlds coming together: my education world and my management and leadership world. It is the perfect blend for me and my family. She did that for me.”

McGraw, now consultant of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for the Diocese, was immediately taken with Spera, as well.

“When I was principal, I called Lily several years ago to see if she would be interested in teaching middle school math at St Ambrose School, her response was ‘that sounds amazing and would be my dream job!’ ” McGraw said via email.

“This speaks volumes to Lily Spera’s positivity, enthusiasm and goal orientation. She confidently greets each person with a smile and every situation with a “can-do” attitude. All of these qualities will serve her well as a visionary leader and principal at St. Ambrose School.”

While Spera enjoyed teaching math, she soon itched for something more which led to a mentorship under then-principal Ernest Casile, which led to assistant principal and now principal. As the new school year nears, Spera’s biggest challenge is retaining the children from the pre-K program, which boasts 101 kids, into kindergarten through 6th grade, which has a total of 73 kids.

“We have a very large pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds, which is great because that is our community need. But one of our biggest challenges then is retaining kids from the 4-year-old program into the kindergarten program and then from K into first,” Spera said. “It’s a blessing and a curse to be in such an amazing school district like North Colonie ... but the competition can be tough and it’s something that we face year-to-year. 

”We just try to overcome by showing parents what we have to offer and when they are here, giving them the full experience of what Catholic education is about. That we are educating the whole child, academically, spiritually and socially.”