By Emily Confalone
BU News Service
CHINATOWN — Principal Cynthia Soo Hoo walks confidently through the administrative office space of the Josiah Quincy School wearing a polka dot skirt and a t-shirt with the words “Boston Safe Routes to School” printed over her heart. She turns to a maintenance staff member and asks him to fix the broken PA system in a sober tone. This isn’t her first bout with the intercom.
“I don’t want a Band-Aid for it,” Soo Hoo commands. “I want it really fixed this time.”
Soo Hoo, a seasoned educator and former teacher at JQS in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, leads her school with this same directness and look toward the future. A born and bred Bostonian, she asks for only the best from her students. Part of what makes Soo Hoo’s school unique is what it offers them in return: JQS is one of only four Boston public schools to offer specialized Chinese instruction in language and culture to all its students, according to Boston Public Schools Press Secretary Dan O’Brien. About 60 percent of the students at JQS are Asian.
Further showing Soo Hoo’s commitment to her students, two years ago Soo Hoo applied JQS for International Baccalaureate authorization—another rare designation for a Boston school—which would allow students to cultivate a broader world view.
“We understand what the teaching standards are for the state but some of [our] resources were not meeting those needs,” explained Soo Hoo. She said the individualized curriculum the IB emphasizes is crucial because it allows students to have hands-on development of certain subjects.
Though the principal pushes her staff and pupils to achieve the best, it doesn’t take away from the kindness Soo Hoo shares through her work with students, parents and staff.
“She may not seem as charismatic as other principals,” shared Josiah Quincy Community Field Coordinator Rowena Tuttle, “but she always has the best interests of students at heart and she really listens to the parents.”
Tuttle, who is also a parent of two students at JQS, expressed her appreciation for Soo Hoo’s humbleness in addition to her other qualities. Tuttle recalled a time when a colleague from a different school approached Soo Hoo and asked how long she had taught at JQS. Soo Hoo replied with a simple, “I’ve only been principal for a few years,” choosing not to share her 15 years of teaching experience at the school or her JQS alumni status.
Soo Hoo credits her learned values to her parents. A Chinatown native, Soo Hoo grew up across the street from JQS in the Mass. Pike Towers, a low income apartment complex, and said she appreciated her family’s loud presence in the community. Her father ran Chinatown Café, a local restaurant he owned, while Soo Hoo’s mother advocated on behalf of the neighborhood by fighting to establish organizations like the Chinatown Safety Committee, a group that helps to promote the welfare of Chinatown residents.
Attending neighborhood meetings with her mother as a child gave Soo Hoo a foundation to succeed as an educator at one of the most diverse public schools in Boston.
“Seeing things happen now that raise concerns makes me appreciate [my mother] more,” Soo Hoo said.
Though the principal understood the importance of community, she never saw herself as an educator until she coached sports at the local YMCA. Passion for coaching easily translated to an interest in teaching, which Soo Hoo pursued through a five-year dual degree program in elementary education at Lesley University, graduating in 2000.
Now after 15 years of teaching and three years as principal at JQS, Soo Hoo hopes to continue to provide her students with as many opportunities as possible. The IB designation would elevate the school’s prestige due to the its high standards and rigorous vetting process.
“I need to find ways to be more efficient so that I can focus in on the real work in the classrooms and working with teachers,” Soo Hoo shared.
Soo Hoo said she hopes JQS can become an IB school by 2020; it’s generally a lengthy process to achieve the designation. O’Brien, the BPS press secretary, said only two other BPS schools, Josiah Quincy Upper School and Snowden International High School, are IB-designated schools in the Boston area.
According to retired teacher Lai Lai Sheung, Soo Hoo’s leadership already furthers the school’s efficiency. Now a volunteer, Sheung sees the positive impact that the principal continues to make through her work.
“I can see the evidence of good leadership and how it transitions into smooth operation,” said Sheung, who was also Soo Hoo’s second-grade teacher.