Zooming In On Zhang

A profile on former Principal Jie Zhang.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Former Stuyvesant Principal Jie Zhang was once like many of us: young, naive, and interested in math. But few of us will reach as far, or accomplish as much, as Zhang has in her career in education.

Zhang grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, a sociopolitical movement in support of communism in China in the 1960s and 1970s. She was born in Beijing but moved to Shanghai at a young age. At 18 years old, after going through the standard school system, Zhang went to college and completed her BA in Engineering at Tongji University in Shanghai. From there, she decided to study abroad and completed her masters degree in Mathematics at Stony Brook University in the United States. Zhang had intended to stay in the United States for a maximum of three years. Three years turned into the foreseeable future when Zhang was offered a job as a math teacher in New York.

Zhang’s first experience as a teacher in the public system was a unique one; she taught at the Women’s House, the center for female prisoners, in Rikers Island. Zhang was there to teach the school-age incarcerated women who had been accused of a crime, but many other older women also attended classes. Zhang described her experience: “It was very rewarding because what we did on Rikers was to help women who did not get their high-school diplomas at the right age, and later when they were older, we were able to help them to get a GED, a high-school equivalency test.” Zhang also noted that because attending the school was completely voluntary, the general atmosphere in the school area was very positive.

After working at the Women’s House for four and a half years, Zhang taught mathematics at Forest Hills High School in Queens. She worked there for 10 years from 1993 to 2003. At the turn of the century, Zhang received her degree in Educational Leadership and Administration from Long Island University. She used these skills to become Assistant Principal at Forest Hills High School in September 2001.

The next school Zhang worked at was the Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, one of the eight specialized high schools. Zhang served as principal there for five academic years and then became Stuyvesant’s principal in the fall of 2012. “What triggered my appointment as principal was a cheating scandal [in June of 2012]. Basically, as a result of the cheating scandal, I was sent to Stuyvesant,” Zhang explained.

Zhang described her four years as principal of Stuyvesant as “a fantastic few years,” she said. She elaborated, “Obviously, I really miss Stuy[vesant] a lot. Every time I am in Manhattan, I try to avoid the West Side Highway, because when I drive by the bridge, I get very emotional [...] And not only was I principal for four years, but both my children graduated from Stuyvesant. And so, I feel like it is a home for me.” Zhang’s son, Danny Zhu, graduated Stuyvesant in 2008 and received a Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University. Her daughter, Julie Zhu, was in the Stuyvesant class of 2014 and recently graduated from University of California Berkeley.

While nostalgic, Zhang acknowledged that her experience at Stuyvesant wasn’t perfect. “Being part of Stuyvesant also had its challenges: the bureaucracy, some of the old traditions, and some of the things that I tried to change; it was very hard,” she said. Zhang felt that the bureaucracy within the New York City public education system made it too difficult to collaborate with other countries by preventing individuals, such as herself, from working independently with foreign countries. This was very hard for Zhang because of her interest in collaborating with her home country, China. She said, “I was born and raised in China, and I worked in the city’s educational system for 28 years, and I felt that China in the past 25 years has developed a totally new structure and completely moved forward since the 1980s. And I felt that I kind of missed that movement of my home country. I wanted—before I become too old— to experience the changes in China that I did not experience when I was younger [and living in China].”

So, when the New York Military Academy’s new owner approached Zhang in 2016 as a candidate for principal of their high school, Zhang saw this as an opportunity to do something without the constraints of the public school that was a “creative, challenging and new,” bureaucracy she said. Despite this major difference in her ability to work with other countries, at heart, Zhang’s job at Stuyvesant was very similar to her current job at the New York Military Academy (NYMA). Zhang explained that besides the difference in title (she is currently called a “superintendent” rather than a principal), the most important thing to her—the emphasis on every child’s education —has stayed the same.

However, there are other differences between Zhang’s role at the NYMA and her job at Stuyvesant. The biggest difference is the issue of recruitment, a problem that never needed to be taken care of at Stuyvesant. Before Zhang came to the NYMA in 2016, the school was about to go bankrupt due to the lack of enrollment. Zhang has been able to increase the class size tremendously, but enrollment remains an issue for the school. Enrollment had consistently been a challenge for NYMA because of the possible negative association that comes with the idea of a military school; parents might think of military academies as a place of discipline where behavioral problems are addressed. However, this is not at all the purpose of NYMA.

Another large difference is that at Stuyvesant, the Department of Education took care of a lot of the mechanical issues, but at the NYMA, Zhang is responsible for all of this work. She explained, “Here, I have to make decisions [on] which roof needs to be fixed [and] which contractor should we choose. Those were things that I never had to do at Stuyvesant.”

Zhang’s long-term goals go back to her interest in collaborating internationally, especially with schools in China. She is interested in establishing international schools in China or America, or possibly returning to China for a few years. But in the short term, Zhang’s goal is to “make this [NYMA] school better [...] I don’t want it to fall apart again,” she said.

Zhang has been doing all she can to ensure that the Academy will never fall apart again. This is evidenced by the tenfold increase in enrollment from when she first began; the number of students has increased from nine to 90.