Outstanding Grade School
By Emily Field
Three years ago, St. Stephen of Hungary School, a pre-K through 8th grade Catholic school, was at risk of closing due to low student enrollment. Like many Catholic schools, St. Stephen found itself in the position of needing more students to stay afloat.
St. Stephen focused on attracting more students from its Upper East Side neighborhood by offering a variety of extracurricular activities and small class sizes. “It’s hard to build a school that’s sustainable if it’s not a neighborhood school,” said Katherine Peck, principal of the school. “We found that the neighborhood community really gravitated towards us.”
Today the school has 260 students, up from 156 students three years ago. Its teaching values, which Peck describes as a mix of traditional and progressive, are rooted in the school’s Franciscan tradition. “The focus is on teaching the whole child,” said Peck. “Franciscan values are very big on the whole person. For us in education, it means every single part of you—physically, mentally— has to be nourished to be spiritually healthy.”
St. Stephen has a wide array of extracurricular activities, ranging from violin lessons that start in the second grade, to a gardening club that tends the school’s rooftop garden. “It gives every child the opportunity to shine at whatever they’re really great at,” said Peck. “You find out what it is that you can give back.”
The school recently introduced after-school fencing lessons, and this year St. Stephen is putting on its first musical, Yes, Virginia. “Every single person came out of the woodwork to help—parents, even co-workers of parents,” Peck said.
Class sizes are limited to 18 students, and tuition starts at under $8,000 per student. Each teacher also has a master’s degree in education. While the school follows the New York state guidelines, teams of teachers are in charge of creating the curriculum.
“It’s very hands-on and differentiated for each student’s academic level,” said third-grade teacher Kathleen Culhane. Culhane has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College and has been teaching at St. Stephen’s for two years. “There’s lots of small group work and real life lessons,” she said.
Culhane described how the school uses technology in the classroom. With fundraising help from parents and grandparents, the school was able to buy iPads, which students start using in the fourth grade. “There are really amazing apps for math and math games. There’s one where you can draw and speak at the same time that students use to solve problems and explain,” said Culhane.
“The community is very special and the parents are very involved,” Culhane said. “It’s an amazing place to go to work every day.”
Holly Esperaggo has two children who attend St. Stephen. Her son is in the first grade, and her daughter is in pre-K. This is the second year her family has attended St. Stephen.
“It’s a very warm, nurturing environment,” said Esperaggo. She said that her son had been struggling with reading, and his teachers had helped him to gain more confidence this year. “They’re really sensitive to the kids’ needs and they partner with parents,” she said
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