By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders
In just a few short weeks the new school year begins. Kids will have new books, software and other educational tools. Some may have a new outfit to wear on the first day of school.
But what the students lucky enough to attend Epiphany will not have this year is Jim Hayes as their principal.
For nearly four decades Jim has been the heart and soul of one of the most successful grade schools in the city… parochial or public. Jim would undoubtedly attribute all the credit to his dedicated teachers, both secular and religious, and he would laud his students and their families, but much of the credit belongs to Jim.
You would see him standing outside the school building on 22nd Street near Second Avenue as the kids arrived each and every day, and then again at the end of the day when they departed. His watchful eye could always spot trouble before it occurred or notice one of his students in distress. Jim made sure that they arrived safely, prepared to learn, and left safely as well. He knew his students by name and most of their parents.
The pupils of Epiphany learned more than just the academic basics to prepare them for higher education, they also learned about life. And through Jim’s example they learned about kindness, integrity and responsibility. Jim presided over a rigorous academic program and the vast majority of his students went on to good colleges and careers in part because of the good start they got at Epiphany.
In some respects, the early grades are the most important of all. When a child masters the rudiments of reading, writing, arithmetic and reasoning, they most often meet or surpass their grade level requirements, and they succeed in the challenging school years ahead. The building blocks of education are set into motion from the earliest moment that kids enter schools. In those formative years, students get into the habit of learning and are motivated to achieve. If not, trouble and the need for difficult remediation lies ahead.
And while too many other NYC schools struggle with discipline and providing a positive, harassment-free environment for their students to work within, Epiphany has been a virtual model of school decorum.
During my own political career in government, I became immersed in educational issues as chairman of the State Assembly Education Committee for 11 years. I visited scores of schools and talked with hundreds of teachers, administrators, and advocates. I developed a sense of what works in education. Many experts agree with me that what makes all the difference in the world is found in the abilities and talents of the principal. Epiphany is a great school in large measure because it was blessed with a hands-on, proactive and caring leader in Jim Hayes.
Generations of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village children literally grew up benefiting from the steady guidance of Jim. Some became parents later, and their children became students of Epiphany with Jim still as their principal as well. How very fortunate for them.
As our own school years inevitably fade from memory we tend to remember only a very small handful of educators and leaders who made a difference in our lives in school. The ones who inspired us, mentored us and cared for us. I suspect that for many Jim is one of those standouts.
So, the school bell will ring again very soon but not with Jim standing watch and overseeing the tradition of educational excellence which is Epiphany. If Jim Hayes’ successor follows in his footsteps that will be a great thing.
But honestly there is only one Jim Hayes and how lucky was this community to be able to call him our own!