It was early February, a week before the Chinese New Year at Shuang Wen Public School on Cherry Street in Lower Manhattan.
The principal, Iris Chiu, had just cleaned out her lunch box and was getting ready to start her afternoon when she saw a small red envelope embellished with gold Chinese calligraphy on her desk. Inside was $100 in cash. She recognized it as a “red pocket,” a common Chinese New Year gift. Stunned, the 50-year old marched outside her office and demanded to know where it came from.
“You won’t be able to clear your name, if you jumped into the Yellow River,” Chiu said in Chinese, using a common idiom. It refers to the difficulty of maintaining one’s innocence in compromising situations, because the Yellow River is filled with silt, which is hard to wash off.
The staff bristled. Chiu is known for her brusque style. Tough minded and highly professional, Chiu has been called on several times to calm troubled schools and implement difficult change. Her current position as head of this popular dual language school may be her most challenging yet.
Four years ago, the Department of Education (DOE) called on Chiu to replace Shuang Wen’s principal, who was under investigation on 16 charges, including manipulating the school’s enrollment and attendance rates. Principal Lingling Chou was suspended and later removed from her position. Even so, she remains highly popular amongst the Shuang Wen parents, leaving Chiu to find her own way.
The Lower East Side district serves predominately black and Hispanic students. Yet Shuang Wen is 78 percent Asian. It is one of the nation’s first dual language schools in Chinese and English, and has 668 students from pre-kindergarten to 8th grade.
This particular “red pocket” turned out to be from a student’s elderly grandmother, who had donated it as a raffle prize for the school’s upcoming Chinese New Year celebration event.
Chiu knew to be careful. Exchanging red pockets may be an accepted tradition in Chinese culture, but it breaks the rules in New York City public schools. Her predecessor had overstepped other regulations in the past.
Chiu instructed her staff to call the grandmother and send her a receipt for the donation. In the future, she reminded them, checks are much preferred over cash.
Setting such standards and systems are what Chiu has been trying to navigate in the last four years in Shuang Wen, not without difficulty.
Chiu received a tepid arrival when she showed up in Shuang Wen in the summer of 2011. She took over while the investigation of Chou was still going on. Angry parents were busy rallying in support of Chou and filing a lawsuit against the Department of Education, claiming discrimination against Shuang Wen and Chou because of its predominantly Asian staff and student body. Most of the allegations were dismissed by the judge but the case is still ongoing.
“Iris seems like a nice person, but in terms of dedication, Lingling was 150 percent, she really treated the school as a family,” said Sophia Lee, a parent whose son had attended Shuang Wen since kindergarten and graduated in 2012. According to Lee, Chou was often the first to arrive and last to leave. She knew almost every student’s name. She babysat kids until their parents come pick them up in the evening and provided free tutoring in the weekends.
At Chiu’s first few Parent Teacher Association meetings, emotional parents barely allowed her to speak. Audience members shouted things like, “We want Lingling back!” or launched into long, angry tirades, recalled Yuko Murase, a parent volunteer who has a fifth grade son in the school.
Handmade posters in memory of the ousted principal were still seen in the school six months after Chou’s departure. The Department of Education eventually ordered their removal.
Traces of such turmoil were not visible in Chiu’s office, where relaxing popular piano music filled the air. Dressed in a purple blazer, a beeping Blackberry and a chain of keys attached to her waist, the shorthaired principal moved through the halls like a corporate executive. She has a loud voice and often speaks with her hands. Her expressions can change from smiling to stern in a split second.
“It’s normal for them to be against me, I just try not to respond,” said Chiu with a sigh. “But I do feel a huge sense of frustration.”
On her desk is a bottle of 5-HTP, an over-the-counter nutritional supplement to regulate mood and relaxation. Next to it is a “Keep calm and carry on” daily calendar that says “Boldness, be my friend” for the day. Behind her, a faded newspaper clipping entitled “Learning to love criticism” was tacked to the wall.
“I don’t know how she survived,” said Lynn Berat, a parent with several children in the school who had filed complaints against the former principal. “Ms. Chiu has super human equanimity; she never flinched or lost her cool despite the baiting from parents.”
Yvonne Chan, Chiu’s 16-year old daughter, (Chiu is Iris’ maiden name) remembered her mother crying after work almost every day during the first year at Shuang Wen. “I am surprised she is still going, I thought she would have given it up.”
“She is an overachiever and I think she does not want to give up before making a difference,” said Chan.
It was not the first time that the 23-year education veteran had encountered a challenging environment. An immigrant from Taiwan, Chiu was a New York City crime beat reporter turned multinational corporate executive before becoming a teacher.
She had taught in hostile environments such at Primary School 145 in Queens, where spitballs and death threats were frequently thrown her way. She managed to significantly improve achievement rates in English and social studies at the Brooklyn School of Arts from less than half passing rate to 70 to 90 percent between 2008 and 2011.
In 2005, she became the first Asian assistant principal at Lafayette High School, which was founded in 1939 with nearly 2,300 students. Known for bullying Asian students and called “Horror High” in a 2003 New York Times article, Lafayette was a place where metal detectors guarded the entrance and food was regularly thrown during lunch. Asian students could be attacked by classmates in the school or on the way to the subway. Once, the Chinese valedictorian was beaten unconscious while racist slurs were yelled at him.
On Chiu’s first trip to Lafayette, a Chinese student grabbed her arm saying “Help! Help!” and told her in broken English how he had just been robbed in the bathroom. “It was a dangerous school,” recalled Chiu.
A Department of Justice investigation in 2004 found that Lafayette school district officials had been deliberately indifferent to the harassment of Asian students and issued a mandate for improvement. One of Chiu’s main responsibilities was to implement the change.
“She is tough and perseveres, she won’t quit, I tell you!” said Steve Chung, President of the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn who had worked with Chiu on implementing the changes. “If she can survive Lafayette High, she could survive anywhere.”
Chiu’s previous experiences were in schools with severe administrative problems, low test scores and graduation rates. But Shuang Wen was different. More than half of its graduates were generally accepted into the city’s top nine elite specialized high schools.
“The challenge of Shuang Wen is not instruction, it is its culture,” said Chiu.
Her deep commitment to dual language education has kept her going despite such strong opposition.
In 2007, when Department of Education decided to close Lafayette down and replace it with smaller schools, Chiu had written a proposal for a Chinese dual language 6th to 12th grade school that was almost approved.
“She really wanted to found a true dual language school,” said Weimin Peng, a longtime English as a Second Language teacher at Lafayette and one of the teachers who had put together the proposal with Chiu.
Chiu’s determination to overcome challenges is another reason that she is holding on, said Murase, a long-term parent volunteer at Shuang Wen. “She sounded really proud when she was telling us about her past experiences.”
On the filing cabinet opposite her desk, a piece of paper is positioned so that Chiu looks right at it when she sits. It says: “The finest steel gets sent through the hottest furnace.”
At Shuang Wen, the lack of acceptance by parents was further exacerbated by the instructional changes that Chiu initiated to make the school a truly dual language public school.
Shuang Wen, which translates into “double language” in Chinese, was founded in 1998 by a group of local Chinese American leaders and community activists with the goal of enabling Chinese immigrants to weave together their Chinese and American identities.
Since its first kindergarten class, Shuang Wen provided instruction just like any public schools in English until 3 p.m. and then Chinese language and culture classes in a mandatory after school program from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Shuang Wen Academy Network, a non-profit organization instrumental in the founding of the school, manages the after school program. At first, the program was provided free of charge because of outside funding such as a grant from the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development. It began charging in 2009 when funding dried up after the financial crisis. Attendance, which is now optional, has since dropped to 80 percent.
“It was not a sustainable program; when parents have to pay, it’s no longer a public school design,” said Chiu. “A truly dual language school should provide dual language without parents having to pay a dime.”
To make Shuang Wen truly dual language during school hours meant hiring teachers who could teach subjects in both languages, or be able to partner with someone to co-teach subjects in both languages.
A departure from the traditional bilingual model, which teaches students in their native language until they are capable of full instruction in English, dual language program aims to equip students with mastery of two languages and cultures equally.
Yet, Chiu was not given the resources to do this at first. When she arrived, the school did not have any Chinese language materials; all belonged to the after school program. More critically, she did not have enough licensed bilingual teachers who were able to teach in Chinese.
In addition, Shuang Wen students have been taught traditional Chinese characters and used an older, complex phonetic system that is no longer popular in the world. That limited the pool of Chinese teachers and available educational material even further.
Even with these roadblocks, Chiu initiated dual language program in the first three grades the year she became Shuang Wen’s principal in 2011. Pre-kindergartners through first graders alternated instruction during the day between Chinese and English. The school now has half the grades alternating language of instruction.
The largest resistance came from the parents. Many are immigrants and worry that the quality of instruction in English and other subjects would diminish. Parents admitted that their younger children’s Chinese was superior to their older children’s with the new dual language curriculum, but they worried their younger children were not as good in English.
“Many parents wanted their kids to come to Shuang Wen because of its good academic results, not necessarily to learn Chinese, which was just a by product,” said Chiu. “That was the biggest issue, there was no buy-in from anyone.”
Chiu recognized that to win over the parents she needed first to transform her teachers and show the merits of a dual language program through concrete results.
Extensive research into dual language programs has shown that dual language instruction students, despite having less instruction in English, score just as well or above single language instruction students.
She began organizing training and visiting tours to three other Chinese dual language schools in the city. She initiated observations in classrooms and held frequent review meetings to assess lesson planning, instruction and student work review.
Teacher turnover rates have been high since Chiu arrived and she understood that she would need time to adjust her staff to be fully dual language and to reach her standard of instruction. “You either meet my expectation or leave,” said Chiu. “I can’t have you hurt my kids.”
Last year, the first class on dual language curriculum introduced by Chiu, who were in third grade, scored higher than the kids on the older curriculum by margins of 13 and 14 points respectively. For two consecutive years in 2013 and 2014, the New York State Education Department named Shuang Wen a Reward School, in recognition of its high achievement and low gaps between subgroups, such as children with special needs or English language learners.
“I proved it worked,” said Chiu.
But the results have not brought all the parents back on board yet. According to Alice Ju, Parent Coordinator who has been involved with the school since 2006, participation at Parent-Teacher conference has dropped from a high of 300 parents under the previous principal to a handful in 2013 when Ju took over the role. Now it’s back up to 30 to 50 parents.
With each new incoming class, new parents are joining the school. “I am glad that last principal is gone,” said a parent with a daughter in second grade who declined to give her name for the sensitivity of her comment. “When I heard the last principal tampered with attendance record, who knows what else she could have done!”
For the most part, Chiu is trying to be patient and wait out the change. “If I can’t change my husband whom I have been married for 23 years, who am I to think that I can change others?”
CORRECTION: Jul 7th, 2015
The article has been revised to reflect that Lingling Chou was suspended and removed from her position as opposed to being found guilty and that she had overstepped New York Public School rules whereas previous wording might infer that she had received red pockets which was not the intention. In addition, while many of the allegations have been dismissed by the judge, the legal case of Shuang Wen parents and Lingling Chou against the Department of Education and other parents is still ongoing instead of the entire case being dismissed.