Struggling Catholic school turns things around - New York News

Struggling Catholic school turns things around

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It is hard to imagine now, but just three years ago, 84 year old St. Stephen of Hungary School on Manhattan's Upper East Side, like many Catholic schools, was on the brink of closure because of low enrollment.

"At one point we had about 150 students," says Dr. Timothy McNiff, New York Catholic Schools superintendent. "Whenever you have a universe of 150 students for a school it puts tremendous pressure on the finances of the school."

Rather than rely on some sort of miracle, new principal Katherine Peck came up with a plan turning in rulers for violins and bows and old-fashioned black and white notebooks for cutting edge technology like iPads.

"We believe the shift in education towards the whole child in a value based strong academic program enriched with art, and music and technology, and library and media," Peck says.

Peck took over the ailing school three years ago and is credited with the School's success.

"With our small classroom sizes, we are really able to tailor the instruction to really meet the needs of every single student, and differentiate for strengths and weaknesses." says Peck. "The small groups with reading and writing is something that makes us very unique in a world where many times it is very teacher driven rather than student driven instruction."

In order to stay open, the elementary and middle school principal re-tooled the school to entice families from the affluent neighborhood in which it resides. Peck and her staff altered the school's curriculum to offer services normally found in expensive private schools. It succeeded with flying colors. Enrollment is now up to 261 students.

"It's student centered," Peck says. "It means when you look around the classroom you really won't see a teacher's desk because the teacher is just the facilitator of the learning process."

New initiatives include small class sizes, expanded music programs, hands on science labs, and cutting edge technology in classrooms, new pre-K classes for 2-year-old children.

"We believe it is so important for every student to feel as though they shine, and one way you can do that is by offering them opportunities to shine in music and art and technology and library," Peck says.

Children as young as three are now learning French and older students are studying the violin.

"What I like about it is the new science lab. I like the experiments we're doing," says student Ashton Solomons.

Though the 84-year-old school has implemented many progressive teaching strategies, one subject remains the same: religion.

"We do take a certain segment of our time every day, and it's all about teaching Catholicism, but it's much more than that. What we do -- and I think these teachers do it very well -- they embed that message into the whole culture of that school," says Dr. McNiff, the superintendent.  "It's coming out in English, it's coming out in history class, it's being taught while they're having lunch." 

St. Stephen of Hungary School has managed to implement their new programs putting them on par with much more expensive private schools without straining parents' wallets. Over the last three years, tuition has gone up only 2.5 percent. Tuition costs start under $8,000 a year, less than a quarter of what many private schools cost.

The low price in tuition is thanks in most part to parents' fundraising. Fundraising has increased over the last here years from $2,000 a year to about $120,000. Amongst other benefits, funds raised have afforded the school to hire two new teachers.

"We feel what we get back is more than what any school could charge us in tuition," says parent Colleen Kiley.

 "We love St. Stephen's," says parent Jennifer Hartman. "I feel that we get a better education here than some of the big private schools out there."

Although it's not required by law, every teacher at St. Stephen of Hungary is state certified and has a master's degree.

And as cool as instruments and high tech gadgets are, parents say what really sets their school apart is the school's sense of community.

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