Lenape Elementary School’s new principal, Audrey Wood, says she always knew she wanted to work with young children. At one point, she thought her career might take the form of writing children’s books, but after graduating college as an English major, she gravitated toward teaching. She enjoyed working as a student teacher with high school students, but decided that younger children would be a better fit for her, so with that in mind, it was off to complete graduate studies at Columbia University.
Wood began teaching in New York City schools directly following graduation. After five years teaching in the city and four more in Connecticut, she took a break to have her own children, now teenagers. (Audrey and her husband, David, an entrepreneur in the health care and technology fields, have two sons, Griffin, 16 and Johann, 15, and two daughters, Abigail, 14 and Katerina, 13.)
And when she left teaching temporarily to raise her kids, Wood also started her own preschool. “I felt there wasn’t a school available at the time that gave the academic rigor that I wanted to see,” she explains. “I know that may sound silly for pre-K, but I believe there’s a lot more you can do with small children to really make it an educational experience. So that’s what I tried to do; to create a school that would meet that need in the community.”
Wood ran the preschool for a number of years until her kids were all in school, and then went back to school again herself, after which she worked as a curriculum coordinator in science and engineering in the Arlington Central School District in Dutchess County. From there she moved on to Albany County, where for two years she was principal at an elementary school in the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central School District until coming to New Paltz to begin the 2015-2016 school year as Lenape’s principal.
In speaking about the move from working as curriculum coordinator to being a building principal, Wood says she finds the closer contact with the kids to be especially rewarding. “Working in a district office situation is wonderful; you get a really broad view of the school district and a very clear idea about the curriculum,” she says. “And that’s really amazing, and it allows you to understand a lot about how the whole thing works. But I missed children. I always knew I wanted to work with children from when I was small, and I would think, ‘How did I end up sitting in an office working with teachers after school and not being around children?’ That was what I really wanted to do, and what I actually trained to do in the first place when I was in Connecticut, to work with children as a principal, being a building leader. So I went back in as a building leader and here I am.”
Originally from Rockland County, Wood grew up in the same house her parents still live in, in Pearl River. She attended Nanuet schools from kindergarten through grade 12. And New Paltz as a community is not new to Wood; she’s been coming up here since her teens to hike the Gunks. “One of the nice things about New Paltz is that although it grows and changes, there’s still a constancy. I was amazed when I came back and found so much of the town the same; Rock and Snow, for example, is still here. Some things change, but not everything.”
Hiking is one of her favorite pastimes, Wood says. She’s in the midst of a long-term project to hike the Appalachian Trail. “It’s a 20-year venture, because I don’t have much time to devote to it, but over the summer my girlfriend and I put in 100 miles if we can do it. It’s an exciting experience; a bucket list item. Originally we said we were going to do it in order, but that didn’t work, so now we’re doing it in pieces and we have sort of a color-coded plan to get through.”
Cross-country skiing is another passion. “It’s great exercise and you don’t even realize you’re exercising!” she says. “It’s fun, and you’re constantly moving. The same friend that I hike with is somebody I choose to ski with often; we bring all of our children and they go and ski their way and we go ski our way.”
Her biggest challenge as Lenape principal, Wood says, is “being able to give everything its due.” She would love to be in the classrooms with the children every single day, she adds, and meet often with the teachers and parents, “but as you start to spread out all the ‘I-would-like-to-be-able-tos’ with paperwork that’s incumbent upon the position and other matters that come up — whether there’s an incident, or whether there’s a curriculum piece that needs to be written — everything starts pulling in all directions, and although it’s all exciting and interesting, giving all of it enough time is always the biggest challenge. I find that I come in early in the morning and stay until very late at night and still don’t have enough time to do everything that I want to do.”
In the time she’s been in New Paltz, Wood says she’s been impressed with how everyone in the school district treats each other. “I have worked in many places in the course of my career, and with lots of different people, and — not to say anything disparaging about anyone I’ve worked with in the past — but I’ve never worked with a lovelier group of people as I have here. It’s a very welcoming district; a very concerned and caring district. The staff cares about each other and about the students, the administration cares about the teachers and the students; everybody is concerned about everyone else, and there’s a real communication connection that you don’t always see in school districts. It is something very special and unique, and I don’t know if everyone is as aware of it as they should be.”
Working with talented colleagues and feeling that she is able to bring something to the table herself is a gratifying part of her job, Wood says. “I learn as well as teach. I have a strength in curriculum, having been a curriculum coordinator, so I have things I can share, but having all the incredible abilities and knowledge that they do and such support from the district office is just a wonderful situation to find oneself in. Our assistant superintendent, Michelle Martoni, provides a lot of support to the work that we do, providing an underpinning to everything so it all flows smoothly and connectively, and Maria [superintendent Rice] is also extremely accessible and willing to be supportive and understanding. Really, I can’t imagine that I’ve ever worked any place that I’ve enjoyed more.”