Immigrant Principal Sees Herself in Students

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Raised in a Chinatown tenement, she’s now a neighborhood principal

By Gavin Aronsen

Twenty-one years ago, when Lily Woo first arrived at P.S. 130 Hernando de Soto, she was seen as an outsider and greeted with suspicion.

The previous principal had retired, and the district superintendent had just finished the search for a replacement who could bring the underperforming school up to speed. Assistant Principal Howard Epstein, a 30-year veteran of the school, was a prime candidate for the job. But the superintendent chose Woo.

“Of course, I was very disappointed in not having gotten the school,” recalled Epstein, who is now in his 51st year at the school in the same position. “We had to come to grips with the situation.”

Epstein and Woo set aside their differences and successfully rallied the school’s staff around the new principal.

Today, Woo’s peers credit her for transforming P.S. 130 into one of the city’s finest. Once complacent with a 38 percent passing rate, the Chinatown school now ranks in the 98th percentile for student performance and has been recognized by the city, state and U.S. Department of Education for its achievements.

In addition to a supportive staff, Woo gave special credit to Kaye Lawson, an education consultant who works in Australia, as well as in the U.S. Lawson has been helping the Chinatown school for the past 14 years.

Said Epstein, “If [Woo] wasn’t instrumental in trying to seek the person who could meet the needs of the staff in the building, it would never have worked the way it did. She always considers the total picture.”

Woo, 59, uses her own background to relate to her students, about 90 percent of whom are Asian and most of whom come from families that do not speak English.

The principal was born in Hong Kong and came to the states with her parents and younger brother, unable to speak English. The family settled in a Chinatown tenement house where they lived for the next 27 years.

“I lived the lives of the children who live around me,” Woo said. “I lived in a three-room railroad apartment, where the bathtub was in the kitchen and the bathroom in the hallway.”

Her father was a restaurant worker whom she barely saw because he worked seven days a week. Her mother ran a dry-cleaning business, where Woo would go after elementary school to help out.

Woo later went to middle school on the Lower East Side before graduating from the Bronx High School of Science. She studied elementary education at Queens College, got her masters at New York University in English as a Second Language and took a fellowship on leadership at Columbia.

When she came to P.S. 130, Woo brought with her an impressive resumé: elementary and alternative high school teacher, adult basic education instructor, high school staff developer, ESL project director and state education department associate.

After taking some time off when she had her children, Woo returned to what she called her “first love”: elementary school. That’s when she started at PS 130.

Today, Woo lives in Queens with her husband, who is also an educator, and two children. However, she said she spends about 15 hours each day at her school in Chinatown, where 1,020 children in pre-kindergarten through the 5th grade receive their education.

Because Woo’s school is both Title I—82 percent of its students are on the free and reduced lunch program—and high achieving—which reduces available need-based assistance—funding for its ambitious arts programs can be hard to come by. The programs, which include dance, music and visual arts, cost on average $15,000 each year, Woo said.

Last year, parents stepped up to the plate, raising nearly $100,000 through fundraising to keep the programs afloat.

“That should give you an inkling about the kind of support I have in this school,” Woo said.

That support won Woo the honor of being among a select group of New Yorkers who helped carry the Olympic torch in its around-the-world trip for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. She passed the torch off at Ground Zero, about a mile from her school, as a representative of the city’s education system.

Said Epstein, “The personnel that she has put in place, the ideas that she has taken and that she has made herself, have made P.S. 130 what it is today.”

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