James Hayes Takes 124-Year-Old Epiphany School into the 21st Century

By Mary Johnson on January 16, 2012 7:45am 

James Hayes, 64, has been the principal of The Epiphany School for the past 32 years.
James Hayes, 64, has been the principal of The Epiphany School for the past 32 years.
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DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

GRAMERCY — Each week, DNAinfo.com talks to a principal from one of Manhattan's schools. This week, it's James Hayes, 64, of The Epiphany School, a 124-year-old Catholic institution that is spread between three locations in the Murray Hill and Gramercy areas. Hayes details how the school has evolved in his 32 years as principal.

Q: Are you from New York?

JH: Yes, I grew up in the Bronx, went to Catholic schools in New York and Catholic high school, Catholic college. I'm a graduate of Iona College. I have my master’s degree from Manhattan College.

I found [Catholic education] to be very rewarding because it taught you certain structures and skills. Catholic schools have a traditional model of being well-organized, and the expectations are very high. And, you know, the skill sets that you learn certainly bode well later on in life.

Q: What were you like in school? Were you a troublemaker?

JH: I wasn’t a troublemaker. I certainly enjoyed school, all aspects of it — not just the academic part but the socialization part. I think the turning point came when I went to Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx and met some teachers there — especially one teacher, Father Matt Peters, who was very influential.

He taught literature, and one of the things he got me into was reading — you know, literature and expanding my horizons from just a local kid in the Bronx to a little bit more than that.

I think that more than anything else triggered my desire to be in education.

Q: When you went to college, were you on the education path?

JH: No, as a matter of fact, I was on a business path, so I have mixed degrees, one in business and one in education, which certainly bodes well when you’re running basically an independent school where you have to be very cognizant of budgets and expenses and revenues. This is a tuition-driven school, so all those business aspects of my past certainly help me in running the school.

You have to look at a school like this like a small corporation. We don’t get any assistance from the Archdiocese [of New York], so we have our own foundation that we set up, which supports the school, as well as the tuition that we charge the parents. And we try to keep the tuition at a reasonable rate so we can attract the middle class people that are in this community.

Q: How long has the school been around?

JH: The school’s been around over 100 years. This [East 22nd Street location] is the original building they used to house first through eighth grades. Back in ‘85, we opened up a kindergarten, and then in ‘91 or ’92, we opened up a pre-K. And then in ’95, we opened up a nursery. Also in ‘92, we took over another building on 28th Street and made that a middle school so that we can increase our enrollment. We’ve gone from about 250 children to 550 children over the last 20 years.

We just started an early elementary center on 29th Street now, in the lower part of St. Stephen’s Church for our pre-K and nursery. So it’s almost like a third location for the school in the neighborhood.

Q: How has the school changed in the time that you’ve been here?

JH: We’ve expanded our facilities — the libraries, new science labs. The days of just simple classrooms and not having the support mechanisms of art and music and science are over with. In this day and age, you have to be able to educate the total child. We do a very good job academically and spiritually, but we also have to deal with the physical and emotional and the social aspects of growing up in New York City. So we have to give children a taste of everything, of all the disciplines.

Q: Do you have any stories of a particular student you feel you’ve had the most impact on?

JH: Every school affects a certain percentage of the kids and — similar to what Father Peters did for me — gives them that defining moment that sets them off on their way. So over the years, I’ve had a number of students like that.

There’s a very high-ranking police commander in New York City that stops by on occasion. He was one of my students up in the Bronx. There’s somebody in the FBI’s New York office, another former student from this school that comments often on [how] he might be on the other side of the fence if it weren’t for The Epiphany School.

It certainly reaffirms what you’ve done in your career. You know that old saying about how, 100 years from now, it’s not what kind of a car you drove or what kind of a house you had, if you affected a child’s mind, that’s a lasting legacy more than anything else.

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