NEW YORK — A front page story in The New York Times last week has drawn attention to the innovative programs, dedicated staff and growing enrollment of St. Stephen of Hungary School on East 82nd Street.
In the Aug. 20 story, Angelo Gambatese, OFM, pastor of the Upper East Side parish, and Katherine Peck, the principal, described their goals as well as the programs at the kindergarten to eighth grade school. “Our competition, or our standard, isn’t another Catholic school,” he said. “It’s the best independent schools in Manhattan, and we intend to achieve the same level of performance that they do, academically, developmentally.”
The story by Jenny Anderson, titled “To Survive, A Catholic School Retools for a Wealthier Market,” pointed out that Catholic schools have been losing money and students in recent years and many have been forced to close. “Some, like St. Stephen of Hungary, have found ways to thrive,” the article said. “Selling points include small class sizes and extracurricular activities beginning in the youngest grades.”
More Than the Basics
“St. Stephen offers the kind of extras found at far more expensive schools, like French for 3-year olds, violin for fourth- and fifth-graders, and iPads for sixth- to eighth-graders,” the story said.
“The reporter certainly expressed the advances of our education,” said Angelo, stationed at St. Stephen’s since 2002. “She spent three days at the school, talking with everyone.”
However, he said, the theme of the story was not quite accurate. “She gave the impression that we are retooling as a way to attract wealthy people.” Rather, he said, “it is because of all the positive programs that St. Stephen of Hungary put into place that more people became attracted to the school.”
“I think the affluent community has gravitated toward us because we have very high academic standards, and a value-based education that is enriched with wonderful programs that allows every student to shine, feel good about themselves, and want to be a great person,” said Peck in a video that appeared on the Huffington Post. Peck was a contributer in a discussion held by HuffPost Live about how Catholic schools are reinventing themselves.
After the publishing of both the Times article and the video by the Huffington Post, the school’s website received more than a million hits, said Angelo, who said he is “delighted” about the school’s development.
“We have a super faculty,” he said, adding that the principal “is phenomenal. She uses all the latest techniques, and she is doing a great job at fundraising.”
Though the cost for students to attend St. Stephen’s is less than similar Manhattan Catholic schools — one-quarter the tuition of some, according to The New York Times — Angelo has an idea of a change that could help families who currently are not able to afford St. Stephen School to afford the progressive education that brings more students to the nearly 90-year-old school.
“I would like to start a payment system called ‘fair ability to pay,’” he said. “It means that traditional tuition is eliminated and families would pay based on a cost-per-pupil system. Parents who could not afford the standard tuition would not need to pay it. They would pay what they could.”
“A tuition-based school means that programs are based on how much money is available. At a cost-per-pupil system, the cost is determined after the programs are in place,” he said.
“If we could institute this system, more minorities could come to our school,” Angelo said.
Angelo, who holds a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame, said he brought the “fair ability to pay” plan to St. Mary’s School in Pompton Lakes, N.J., after having used it in the Albany and Syracuse, N.Y., dioceses where he has worked. Angelo has also been on staff at other schools during his nearly 50 years as a friar.
Several years ago, Angelo received the OTTY Award from Our Town, a community newspaper covering the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The award, which means “Our Town Thanks You,” is given out annually. Recipients include organizational and civic leaders who work specifically within the neighborhood, or East Side residents who make special contributions to the greater New York City community. Angelo was credited for his efforts to bring the parish out to the community, according to a HNP Today story.
St. Stephen School was founded in 1928, serving working class families from the neighborhood’s Hungarian community at a monthly cost of 50 cents, according to the Times report.
“When Cardinal Egan visited our school during 2009 Catholic Schools Week, I remember him saying ‘St. Stephen of Hungary is the best Catholic school in Manhattan,’” Angelo said.
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.