At first they were just a few fleeting shadows on the walls of an abandoned two-family house. But soon it was clear from the Epiphany School's rear windows and playground that the shadows were drug dealers unloading their stash and others picking it up.
Not wanting a drug house next door, the school bought the rundown building on Mather Court for $540,000 and this year reopened it as a residence for nine intern teachers. Buying dilapidated real estate might seem an unorthodox venture for a school, but for Epiphany, a tuition-free, private middle school founded by three Episcopalians in the Diocese of Massachusetts, it is just the start of a larger scheme to stabilize its corner of Dorchester, Boston’s largest neighborhood.
Epiphany, with 80 fifth- to eighth-graders, runs nearly 12 hours a day, 11 months a year with one mission: to give students who otherwise would be in public schools what public schools don't. While public schools, operating with less and less money, are limiting extracurricular activities and accepting that they cannot act as social agencies, the Epiphany School says it works because it does.
"The goal is to be everything a family needs," said the Rev. John Finley IV, Epiphany's head of school and cofounder along with the Rev. Jennifer Grumhaus Daly, outreach director, and Bishop Thomas Shaw. Finley wants to buy more property to create low-cost housing for parents and transitional homes for foster children who attend the school.
The small school takes in children whose worlds sometimes can be filled with chaos, neglect and violence and devoid of role models or even warm meals and housing. Rather than ignore those forces or battle them individually, the school has tried to create a competing and almost all-encompassing universe where students can not only learn, but also grow up.
On weekdays, they spend 7:30 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. inside the school. They eat breakfasts of scrambled eggs and pancakes and lunches of rice and beans and chicken. At dinner, they use plates, instead of lunch trays, and real silverware. Parents and siblings are encouraged to dine alongside them.
The school also provides comprehensive health care for students. Once enrolled, all students are screened for vision and dental problems, and the school helps students get prescriptions. Epiphany also sets money aside for students who need counseling or mental health therapy and whose families cannot afford the care. If families don't have health insurance, the school connects them with social service agencies and community health-care organizations.
The school is open on Saturdays, providing children with cooking and dance classes and sports. Field trips are unique. Every summer, for example, Epiphany takes a group of students on extended sailing trips, teaching them how to work together.
Epiphany accepts only Boston residents, usually about 20 a year picked through a lottery. The school does not advertise and gets most of its applicants through word of mouth. The student body is nearly all minorities: 73 percent black, 19 percent Latino, 4 percent Asian and 4 percent white. The school reserves 20 percent of its places for foster children.
There are two ironclad requirements: The student's family must be poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and, to get them involved, parents must volunteer at least two hours a week at the school on tasks such as preparing meals or answering phones.
"If a parent does not show up or answer our calls, we let them know that their child cannot come back to school until they meet with us," said Daly. "Sometimes that means knocking on their door. It works." The school, founded with 20 students in a church basement in 1997, has an operating budget of just under $2 million a year.
While the makeup of the student population is similar to the public schools, Epiphany teachers and staff are keenly aware of what students need outside the classroom. The difference starts at the beginning of each day.
Students line up at the glass front doors of the brightly painted two-floor building. They must face Finley, make eye contact and shake his hand or they are not allowed inside. "It's about building character," said Finley, a slender 36-year-old who graduated from Harvard University and who was ordained this year. That brief contact also lets him keep tabs on his students and alert teachers to which ones might have a bad day.
There is one teacher for every 10 students at Epiphany, compared to one for every 28 in Boston's public middle schools. Students study religion, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, as well as the state's standard curriculum. After classes end at 3:15 p.m., students play sports until dinner at 5. From 5:30 to 7:15, they do their homework until their parents pick them up.
Because of all the extra programs and services, Epiphany spends about $20,000 per student each year, all raised through private donations, compared with about $10,700 per pupil for Boston public schools.
Children wear uniforms of khaki pants and navy blue shirts and aspire to attend top high schools such as Boston Latin, Boston Arts Academy and Fontbonne Academy in Milton.
Most get into those kinds of high schools, and Epiphany graduates attending private or parochial schools can dip into a financial aid fund. In the spring, the first Epiphany graduates applied to college. Nineteen of the 20 were accepted, the school said. The other joined the Army.
"I don't try to think of us as saving children," said Daly. "We don't see necessarily what goes on after. Sometimes they leave here and fall apart. And we have some kids who, after they leave the school, realize this place gave them the extra boost they needed." But it is not a boarding school, and students still must face the world outside Epiphany's embrace. It is a world where, sometimes, bullets come through bedroom ceilings.
Tajuana Jones, 12, smiles sweetly as she recounts the morning she was sleeping in her bed a few blocks away from the school on Centre Street when she heard a piercing sound of a single gunshot above her. She screamed. Shards of the ceiling fell on her. The bullet hit her headboard, then grazed her pillow.
"God must've wanted her to live because they said, if her head was a couple inches over, she wouldn't be here right now," recalled Tajuana's mother, Taryn Sledge, 29. The next morning, Sledge called the school about what had happened, saying that Tajuana might miss classes. But Tajuana, who says she has one goal -- Milton Academy -- disagreed, urging her mother to drop her off at school.
"It was scary," the soft-spoken sixth-grader recalled while walking through the school corridors one morning. "But I knew if I come to school, it would take my mind off of it. It makes me happy being here."
Eighth-grader Josh Simmons, 15, said getting used to Epiphany's rules and extra-long school days took some time. But the small class sizes helped him get focused, and he feels a special bond with some of the teachers, particularly the younger intern teachers, he said. "The interns are kind of close to our age," Simmons said as he dashed to his next class. "So, we can talk to them more than we do an older teacher. They are like big kids. I like that."
Inside their classrooms, Epiphany students are like most others across the city. While some in a sixth-grade class discussed Judy Blume's timeless novel Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret or diagrammed a five-paragraph essay, others were repeatedly warned to stop talking. One student put his head on his desk, refusing to participate.
Principal Michelle Gomes, who started at the Epiphany School as an intern teacher in 1997, said this was exactly why she stayed; ; these are essentially public school students in a private school.
"It's a chance to work with kids in optimal setting," said Gomes. "You have them all day long. You can see right away what the issues are and you can go to work to help them." But the days can be long and hard, said Gomes, who spends a lot of time counseling students one on one. "Sometimes I have to say to a student, `Look, life is not fair, you got dealt bad hand, but you have to move on.'"
For the 30 teachers and staff members, immersing themselves in nearly every aspect of a child's life isn't always easy. They get frustrated when they don't see their students making progress, but at times it's not the student's behavior they contend with, but the parent's.
"I've had screaming matches with a few parents," said Finley. "I realized, though, that I had something to learn, that while I thought she wasn't hearing me, I wasn't understanding her, and I had to make the adjustment. It's about building trust."
The school's teachers sometimes appear more like community activists than hard-bitten educators. There are nine intern teachers, who get room and board and a $400 monthly stipend. Ten experienced teachers, some of whom work part time, get pay similar to Boston public schoolteachers.
"They don't pay us a lot of money, but you spend so much time here that you don't think about it," said Tristam Hewitt, 24, an intern and Harvard grad. "Some days are really hard."
For foster parents, the school provides a support system for children who are abandoned and victims of neglect and sometimes physical and sexual abuse. "It has built powerful relationships between the adults [at the school] and many of our children, and that's a critical issue because our children have experienced betrayal or failure of parents to bond with them," said Harry Spence, commissioner of the state Department of Social Services. "So, for a school to do that consistently and deeply, it is just a very remarkable thing."
Terry McQuillan, 49, and his partner were foster parents to a 10-year-old boy named David. Abandoned by his biological parents, David arrived at Epiphany as a fifth-grader but tested academically at second grade, McQuillan said. He was withdrawn and often defied teachers.
But the school's staff didn't give up and brought in therapists to help. The school does not expel students unless they bring a weapon to school or seriously assault other students or staff members, said Finley.
By the time David reached seventh grade, he was a student council representative and getting all As and Bs. Now 15, David graduated from Epiphany and was accepted to Boston College High School, said McQuillan, who has adopted David. But to be sure his son was ready, McQuillan enrolled David at Beacon Academy in Boston, a 14-month program that prepares students for the rigors of highly competitive schools.
"The school certainly made our decision to adopt David much easier," said McQuillan, fighting back tears. "This place saved his life. I don't know what exactly would have become of him if it weren't for this school."
To respond to this story, write to Episcopal Life or e-mail email@example.com. To contact Epiphany School, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.