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TC's Cahn Fellows Program Names Veteran Chinatown Principal (and Alumna) as Director

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Lily Woo

Lily Woo

Lily Woo, a longtime New York City principal and educator, has been named the new director of Teachers College’s Cahn Fellows Program for Distinguished Public School Principals.

Woo, a member of the Cahn Fellows’ original cohort (the program has just welcomed its twelfth), will take up her new duties in August when she steps down as Principal of P.S. 130 Hernando de Soto in New York City’s Chinatown, a post she has held since 1990.

Woo succeeds Bill Moore, a 2007 Cahn Fellows who became the program’s director in 2013 after serving as an Alumni Committee  member and Chair of the Selection Committee.

In Woo, the Cahn Fellows Program is getting a leader who not only knows urban schools, but also possesses an innate understanding of the challenges facing many students. Born in Hong Kong, Woo spoke no English when she arrived in the United States as a young child. She grew up in a tenement apartment in Chinatown, where her father worked in a restaurant and her mother ran a dry-cleaning business. 

“I lived the lives of the children who live around me,” Woo said in 2010 when she received a Blackboard Award as New York City 2010 Principal of the Year. “I lived in a three-room railroad apartment, where the bathtub was in the kitchen and the bathroom in the hallway.”

Woo graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, studied elementary education at Queens College and earned her master’s degree in English as a Second Language at New York University. She taught at both the elementary and high school levels and later served as an adult basic education instructor, high school staff developer and state education department associate.

Under Woo, P.S. 130 – a Title I school where 82 percent of the students are on the free and reduced lunch program – has risen to the 98th percentile for student performance and has been honored by the city, state and U.S. Department of Education. Much of that success, peers say, owes to her collaborative leadership style. That approach, Woo says, was one of her key takeaways from the Cahn Fellows program and, in particular, from the program’s annual trip to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, where thousands of lives were lost when commanders ignored the advice of their subordinates.

“It shows that you really have to be a good listener,” she says. “You really have to take people’s input into account and weigh all options. You can’t just say, ‘We are doing it my way because I said so.’”

The Cahn Fellows Program for Distinguished Public School Principals was founded in 2002 with the support of Charles and Jane Cahn. The program recognizes outstanding principals and provides them with opportunities for professional, intellectual and personal growth. Over 15 percent of New York City’s principals have benefited from the Cahn Fellows program, with some 20 to 25 principals receiving Fellowships each year. Collectively, the Cahn Fellows working in New York City schools directly impact the lives of over 225,000 children every year.
Cahn Fellow principals lead schools in every borough of New York City, as well as in Newark, New Jersey and Chicago, Illinois.


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