New Epiphany principal aims to build students’ confidence

Stuyvesant Town resident Kate McHugh has replaced James Hayes as principal at Epiphany School. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)

Stuyvesant Town resident Kate McHugh has replaced James Hayes as principal at Epiphany School. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

After nearly four decades, The Epiphany School will have a new principal.

Former principal — and now school foundation president — James Hayes left the position in June to much fanfare and a 200-person flash mob.

Taking over for him is the former assistant principal, Stuyvesant Town resident Kate McHugh, who joined the school 15 years ago as a science teacher. She is also a graduate of the Catholic school, which now has 560 students.

During a recent interview, McHugh said she’s not planning any major changes, just tweaks to the current curriculum with the goal of doing what it takes to make sure students are confident, both in their faith and in being prepared for the realities of the day’s highly technological world.

“We’ve increased the amount of technology a lot in 15 years,” McHugh said, “mirroring what’s going on in society.”

McHugh began her career in education at the school, and it was seven years into the job as a teacher when she moved into an administrative role. At the time, she recalled, Hayes would be responsive to her ideas when she’d propose changes to the curriculum, like pushing teachers to cover a wider variety of subjects.

“He’d say, ‘Okay, run with it,’” said McHugh.

Over the years, Epiphany’s developed a reputation for being competitive. Reflecting on this, McHugh said, “One of our slogans that we have up on the banner is ‘a tradition of excellence.’ You have to always be growing and striving and not be complacent or stagnant where you are. We try to instill that in everyone here. That they should always be improving themselves, whether that means putting some extra effort into a project in the classroom or giving back to others in the community that are less fortunate.”

As an example, she referred to a program the school runs in cooperation with Epiphany parish called “Adopt a Family.” Each grade level is matched with a family in need and makes sure that not only the children are provided with Christmas gifts, but that “they really have a nice, warm Christmas,” with the students also providing things like basic household items that are requested by the parents. The program serves about 30 families.

Meanwhile, as many Catholic institutions in the city have suffered, Epiphany has continued to increase its number of students and is outgrowing its campus on East 22nd Street as well as on East 28th Street, in the lower level of the St. Stephen’s Church property. While there are currently no plans in the works to lease more space, the eventual need to do so is always on the back of administrators’ minds. McHugh, however, said the Diocese has yet to decide what to do with the St. Stephen’s church section of the building, which was closed last year, its parish having merged with another.

In the meantime, “We’re making the best use of the space,” said McHugh. The St. Stephen’s campus houses nursery and Kindergarten as well as a new program for two-year-olds, grades 4-8 and an environmental center.

Kate McHugh at her office

Kate McHugh at her office

The 28th Street location, in use since 1991, has helped speed along a shift in the student body with fewer children coming from Stuyvesant Town to more children coming from Murray Hill and Turtle Bay. This change was something Hayes had commented on previously to Town & Village, with the school also having seen “the writing on the wall” about families getting priced out of ST/PCV over a decade ago.

“The dynamics of Stuyvesant Town have changed tremendously in the last 10 years or so,” said McHugh. “We’ve seen a shift in our enrollment because families aren’t staying as long, but we still do get a solid number of families from Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.”

It may help that Epiphany’s tuition is less than some other Catholic schools ($8,100-$9,000 a year), prompting some parents to tell McHugh, “They felt they were getting value for values.”

Values are, after all, part of the curriculum and not just in religion classes.

“It’s also part of English and social studies and even math,” said McHugh. “We teach about kindness and helping others.”

Additionally, while most students come from the surrounding neighborhoods, there are increasing numbers of kids from the outer boroughs and New Jersey.

“Because the school isn’t that far from the midtown business area, you have some parents who come into Manhattan for work and they bring their children to Manhattan as well,” McHugh said.

A recent count revealed Epiphany students came from 47 zip codes. At this time, there’s a waiting list to get in that varies in length based on the grade level of the child, with younger students in for a longer wait.

Asked what she expects the biggest challenge in running the school will be, McHugh said that would be in meeting the needs of the school community.

“I think the toughest part of being principal is going to be helping people in need and that means so many different things,” she said. “A child who’s struggling in school, a family who’s going through some sort of stressful situation, trying to help families in a way that is supportive and welcoming but also balanced with what is best for our community. Making decisions that are meaningful and helpful to our school.”

Asked about the struggles of a student, specifically the tragic boy from Staten Island who made headlines after he killed himself over bullying at his Catholic school, McHugh discussed the Epiphany way of responding to a student in distress. She declined to discuss Danny Fitzpatrick, the aforementioned student from Staten Island, saying she didn’t feel she knew all the facts. However, in general, McHugh said there is a process in place to make sure kids’ concerns are heard.

“I can say when we’ve experienced an issue with kids feeling like they’re not being treated fairly, whether by a student or anyone, the first thing I try to do is hear everyone’s side of the story independently,” she said. “When you’re dealing with kids, there are some conflicts (in their stories). It’s difficult for the principal, for the parent, the teacher to know exactly where the truth lies in the different versions of the story. Somewhere in the middle is usually where it comes together. But the goal is to make the students at Epiphany comfortable and safe. It’s important for kids to be able to tell their sides of the story and to express that to you, even if you’re likely to get a conflicting version.”

Also asked about the best part of her new position, McHugh responded that it was simply being involved with the school.

“It’s a very welcoming type of place. I feel blessed to be moving into this new role. The support we’ve received from the parents has been tremendous.”

She also said the school’s new vice principal at the 22nd Street campus, Mary Jane Higgins, another resident of Stuy Town, has been tremendously helpful. “She’s been a part of the administration for a number of years and I’m grateful she is continuing on the journey with me,” McHugh said.

McHugh’s own two kids will also be attending Epiphany this fall. Her husband works at Knickerbocker Village.

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