All children are sacred at Epiphany School in Massachusetts

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson
Posted Apr 10, 2023

Children enrolled in Epiphany’s early learning center not only receive hands-on education but their parents are provided with financial, housing and emotional resources to ensure their children’s future success. Pictured from left: Anaya, Asante, Jordan and Ezikiel learn about God’s creatures with their teacher, Camila, an Epiphany school graduate from 2005. Photo: Courtesy of Epiphany School

[Episcopal News Service] In 2021, the U.S. Department of Education launched an Equity Summit Series encouraging educators to address classroom inequalities COVID-19 brought to the surface and to reimagine what a just education could be beyond the pandemic.

At the time, the U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said, “This is our moment as leaders to transform our education systems, so they are truly serving all of our nation’s students.”

Two decades before “inclusion,” “equity” and, even “COVID,” became words that would define a people and place, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts was having its moment of educational transformation — reimagining how to serve children in and around Boston.

In 1998, a group of educators, activists and philanthropists came together and set what the Rev. John H. Finley IV called an “audacious goal” to create an independent Episcopal school that would put the needs of disadvantaged children first. Together, they founded the Epiphany School, where its guiding belief would be that “every child is sacred,” said Finley.

Finley has served as Epiphany’s head of school since its beginning with a scattering of classrooms housed in several churches of the diocese until enough money was raised for its own building in 2001. Today, Epiphany has a sprawling campus in Dorchester that welcomes some 60 early learners, 90 middle school students and dozens of graduates every day in its graduate support center. In the early learning center, Epiphany starts partnering with families before babies are born.  In the middle school,  students are admitted through a lottery and referral-based admissions process open to children from economically disadvantaged families and children who have been abused and neglected, and most come from Boston’s neighboring communities of Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and Hyde Park.

In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, students and their families are provided with what Finley calls “wrap-around” service. These include dental and medical care, housing assistance for families and three meals for the students, featuring produce from Epiphany’s onsite garden. Funding for Epiphany’s vision is made possible mainly through gifts from individuals. In the school’s 2022 annual report, almost $5 million was given by private donors, followed by support from foundations, companies and churches.

“Our food program is a central component of our model,” said Finley.

Uncovering children’s potential

Epiphany recognized early on that for any child to have a chance, they must have support systems in place that go beyond the classroom. That is why parents play an integral role in the school. Epiphany instructors and counselors meet regularly with parents in their homes. Parents are also expected to volunteer weekly at the school for at least two hours.

“We walk alongside families, getting to know them, their children and then tailoring their educational plan,” said Finley, adding that it’s a model that has sustained Epiphany for 25 years and has inspired similar educational models nationwide.

Success though doesn’t come easy. Former students Steeve Joazard and Emily Centeio both agree that while their time at Epiphany was a blessing — it was also a challenge.

Joazard, a 2004 graduate, admits that middle school was a “difficult transition” for him. “I was drowning,” he said.

Studies show that food insecurity is detrimental when it comes to a child’s education. At Epiphany, students receive three balanced meals daily, with much of the produce coming from the school’s garden. The garden also serves as an educational tool as eighth-grader Adrenalys, right, helps Ash, Epiphany’s director of gardens and sustainability, with transplanting seedlings. Photo: Courtesy of Epiphany School

Epiphany teachers, though, saw how the tween was engaged in reading and nurtured that interest. In college, though, Joazard took a different route: computers. One day, while staring at the screen not feeling very excited, he remembered his time at Epiphany and realized what really gave me joy. Joazard now teaches writing and literature at Epiphany.

“I’ve been here five years. It’s an amazing feeling to give back to a school which gave me such an opportunity to live up to my potential,” he said. As for his teaching style? “It’s a combination of several teachers who inspired me, and some of whom I now work alongside,” he added.

Centeio, who graduated in 2002, came to Epiphany after being “bored” in other schools. “Everything was just too easy for me, but at Epiphany, they put together a learning plan that would challenge and push me,” she said. “It even included algebra!”

As her brain worked on puzzling formulas, Centeio began seeing more than just a solution to an equation emerge. She saw something even more gratifying. “I had the shocking revelation that maybe I am really special,” she said.

Once a quiet student, Centeio credits Epiphany with helping her advocate for others. Her voice is now heard clearly at Epiphany as she, like Joazard, works at the school. After a stint teaching — in which Epiphany helped train and fund her education in its Teaching Fellows program, providing aid and housing for future teachers — she has found her calling in counseling students.

Both Centeio and Joazard muse that they never thought they would return to Epiphany, but here they are — and they are not the only students turned employees. Over the last 25 years, 57 students have come back to raise up the next generation.

According to Centeio, the Rev. Jennifer Daly, Epiphany’s chaplain and one of the founding members of the school, has been on record telling the students that they will be back. And she, too, has also returned to the school that holds a special place in her heart.

“After 13 years, I left to start a charter school, but I soon found myself back at Epiphany. What’s happening here is transformational,” said Daly.

There is also a spirit of gratitude deeply embedded in the ethos of Epiphany. Daly recently caught a divine glimpse of that gratitude during a weekly worship service held in the school’s chapel. After delivering her homily, Daly watched students and faculty celebrate the Eucharist. She noticed how intentional each person was in taking the elements. Everyone seemed to be in a holy space. Nothing was rushed.

“I was in tears at how earnestly everyone was participating,” she said.

Expanding the vision

The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, bishop of Massachusetts, who has witnessed Epiphany’s quarter-century transformation, says its growth and fruitful ministry can only be the mark of the Holy Spirit — as well as lots of hard work and dedication.

“The school has thrived because it represents not only the provision of good education, but an affirmation, nurturing and equipping of the whole person to grow into their God-given potential as a child of God,” said Gates.

Growing into one’s God-given potential is now starting before middle school at Epiphany.

In 2016, the school opened a 17,000-square-foot early learning center, providing full scholarships full-day childcare and educational instruction for children from infancy to preschool. According to the National Education Association, children involved in early education programs are less likely to repeat a grade and more likely to graduate high school.

Last year, Epiphany’s early learning center took another transformational step in making the world more equitable by funding the future education of every child in the center with a $3,000 investment in Massachusetts’ college saving plan.

“Our intent is that by time each child is ready for kindergarten, their parents are in a position to support their success,” said Finley, adding that the center also offers vocational, financial and mental health resources for the parents and caregivers of the infants and toddlers.

For Centeio, whose 3-year-old son attends the early learning center, she couldn’t be more grateful for Epiphany in her life.

“This has been a place where I was given the freedom to grow and given the support to go where the Spirit was leading me. Now my son is being given a chance even earlier to flourish,” she said.

It’s not just the students and their families whose lives are changed. Even the head of school, Finley himself, has grown thanks to the very children he has been called to serve.

“My most proud moments over the past 25 years have been when I have been the most uncomfortable, allowing myself to be present to the children and observe and learn from them,” he said.

It seems Epiphany School is living up to the name its founders chose so many years ago. On church calendars, the Feast of the Epiphany, observed Jan. 6, celebrates Christ being made known in the world.

“Epiphany is how we manifest our faith out to others,” said Finley. And Epiphany, the school, is doing just that.

-Donna Frischknecht Jackson is a freelance writer living in Vermont