In a time when many Catholic schools in New York City are facing unprecedented challenges, the Epiphany School on the East Side of Manhattan shines as a beacon of resilience and success. Earlier this month, the Epiphany learned it was one of only five schools in Manhattan to be signaled out for a National Blue Ribbon Award from the US Education Department. Two other Catholic schools were also honored: Transfiguration on Mott St. in Chinatown and Saint Stephan of Hungary on E. 82nd St. The two public school honorees included PS 281 The River School on 425 E. 35th St. and P.S. 9, Sarah Anderson Elementary on W. 84th St.
“The honorees for our 2023 National Blue Ribbon Schools Award have set a national example for what it means to raise the bar in education,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “The leaders, educators, and staff at our National Blue Ribbon Schools continually inspire me with their dedication to fostering academic excellence and building positive school cultures that support students of all backgrounds to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.”
Epiphany, consisting of a lower-level school on East 22nd Street, and a middle school on East 28th Street, serves 425 students in total.
In her note to parents on the honor, Principal Kate McHugh noted its high academic standards.
“The faculty’s efforts helped The Epiphany School achieve the Archdiocese of New York’s highest 2022 NYS Test scores, with proficiency rates 50 percent higher than the NYS Public School average. (2023 scores are still embargoed, but we’re confident they will be just as successful!) We applaud our faculty and staff for their unwavering commitment to the growth of our students, both in the classroom and beyond.”
While Epiphany’s enrollment is still down slightly from the pre-COVID days it has not been as hard hit as two other nearby Catholic schools, Immaculate Conception on E. 14th St. and Guardian Angel in Chelsea which recently were force to close their doors. Like Epiphany, those schools had been around for over 100 years. Those schools saw their school population fall below 200 students by the time the NY Archdiocese made the decision in February to close the schools at the end of the school year in June 2023.
The Epiphany School’s success story is a testament to its unwavering commitment to its mission, dedicated staff, and the strong support of its community.
Founded in 1888, the Epiphany School school’s website features a quote from its founder, Mother Marie Alma of the Sisters of Charity: “We have no time to lose because today is shaping tomorrow and our most precious heritage is our youth.” The teachers are entirely a lay staff now, but the founder’s quote exemplifies the tradition of academic excellence that has helped Epiphany to succeed through the decades.
While the school building on 22nd Street is the original, in 1991 Epiphany leased a second building on 28th Street—the former location of St. Stephen’s School, which had just closed its doors—in order to create more room for Epiphany’s growing middle school.
One of the key factors contributing to the Epiphany School’s continued success is the unwavering support it receives from its community. Parents, alumni, and local parishioners have rallied behind the school, ensuring its financial stability and growth. “I think that we have a very strong parent community that supports us and amazing faculty that has helped us to create and maintain a really strong academic program, and the continued support of both our current families and faculty really goes a long way towards building this wonderful community,” says principal Kate McHugh
“Kate McHugh, who’s the principal, was a former student of mine and I hired her as a teacher,” adds current school president Jim Hayes, who was principal for 40 years before McHugh took over. “She has two kids in the school, and you have a lot of that [at Epiphany.] A lot of the staff are former students and alumni, and that creates that sense of family and continuity, and also the sense that these people want to come back and work there because they had such a wonderful experience.”
The closure of Immaculate Conception on East 14th Street and Guardian Angel School in Chelsea serves as a stark reminder of the challenges facing Catholic schools in New York City. These closures have left communities with fewer options for faith-based education. The East Side alternatives for Catholic education now include only St. Joseph’s in the Yorkville neighborhood on the upper East Side and Transfiguration in Chinatown. St. Emeric, St. Brigid’s and Our Lady of Hope all in the East Village have closed over the past decade as the surrounding population changed. The challenges facing Catholic schools in NYC are multifaceted, including declining enrollment, rising operating costs, and increased competition from public schools and charter schools. However, Epiphany School’s leadership has played a pivotal role in steering the institution through these times. That’s not to say that the school hasn’t faced difficulty in recent years; like many other public and private schools alike, Epiphany had to deal with the challenges brought by the pandemic.
“Every day there was something different,” says McHugh. “Changing rules made it difficult to plan.” However, she says their enrollment didn’t suffer too much, in part due to the fortunate location. “I think a lot of schools took a big hit for enrollment during Covid when a lot of families moved out of NYC, and we are lucky to be in a neighborhood that people are moving back in or are just returning to as families.”
“We’re doing quite well with enrollment,” says Hayes. “We’re still down about 10 percent [since pre-pandemic] but certainly we were down worse than that during Covid, and it’s starting to come back now.”
Hayes says some of the school’s success can also be attributed to the establishment of an independent Epiphany School Foundation, financial organization, a 501c3, to support the school back in 1999 which solicits donations from many supporters, not just student families. “I think that catalyst of setting up the foundation, with the permission of the cardinal at the time, allowed us to sort of build this financial independence from the local archdiocese. It’s dedicated to the school, and we’re very fortunate to be able to have that. We’re able to offer a lot of extra programs that we normally wouldn’t be able to do just based on tuition.” The tuition is $12,100 slightly higher than two other East Side Catholic Schools. St. Joseph’s, which charges $8,122 a year and Transfiguration in Chinatown which charges $8,800. But it still less than the $60,000 that many private elementary and middle schools charge. The Grace School, a Christian K-12 school on E. 4th St. charges $62,720 in tuition. The Dalton School private school charges $61,120 tuition.
The Epiphany school’s success serves as an inspiration for other schools facing similar challenges, and may point to a less bleak future for local Catholic education than recent events might suggest.