Volume 20, Number 51 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | MAY 2 - 8, 2008

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Susan Tomasulo teaches a first-grade reading class at Transfiguration. Below, Principal Patrick Taharally.

In its 2nd century, school thrives in the area now called Chinatown

By Julie Shapiro

The Transfiguration School in Chinatown — a school that predates Chinatown itself, not to mention the Civil War — is celebrating its 175th birthday.

Once a bastion for Irish immigrants, and later for Italians, the school is now almost entirely Chinese. The students come to the Catholic school from all around the city, though most of them have no Catholic background at all. Year after year, the students in grades one through eight post enviable test scores, making the school popular among parents and keeping its waitlist long.

This year marks the 175th anniversary of Transfiguration’s first school year, and the school is hosting a fundraising dinner May 9, where Joel Klein, chancellor of the city’s public schools, will speak.

As Patrick Taharally, the principal, looks back on Transfiguration’s 175-year history, he sees threads of tradition that have made the school successful.

“There’s a strong moral component,” Taharally said, referring to the Catholic values the school teaches.

The students spend one class period a day learning about Catholicism, and teachers also weave religion into other lessons, instructing the students in generosity, love, appreciation and compassion, Taharally said.

Those values breed a strong loyalty to the school among its alumni, who often come back to volunteer or teach — or to send their children to follow in their footsteps.

Mary Chin, a Chinatown native, graduated from Transfiguration in 1965 and later moved her family back to Chinatown so her twins, now in fifth grade, could receive the same education she did.

“It’s such a close community, like a family,” Chin said on a recent morning as she folded greeting cards that the school will sell as a fundraiser. “They gave me a very good education and a good foundation for life.”

When Chin, now 57, entered kindergarten, she spoke only Cantonese. The classes were larger than they are now — 52 students in a room, with one nun as a teacher — and the student body was evenly split between Chinese and Italian students.

Chin is Catholic and appreciates that the school teaches her daughters to respect the elderly, be caring and to have discipline.

Her husband, Marvin Chan, 57, is Buddhist, but he doesn’t mind that his daughters are learning about Catholicism since both religions emphasize the importance of giving. He his daughters them about Buddhism at home, he said, sitting beside his wife.

“The idea is the same,” he added.

Only about 20 percent of Transfigur-ation’s students come from Catholic homes, and the school is not out to convert non-Catholics, Taharally said.

Father Raymond Nobiletti only baptizes students who are members of the church.

Alice Li, 11, said the religious classes at Transfiguration School taught her how to become a good person.

“In public schools, people are not always well taught, and their parents sometimes don’t care,” Li said. “But at our school — it shows our parents care for us, because tuition is a lot.”

Li’s parents are Buddhists, but the Catholic education has made an impression.

“Since I grew up learning about Jesus and being Catholic, I sort of believe it,” Li said.

The atmosphere at Transfiguration School is orderly, whether during a first-grade reading lesson or a second-grade math exercise. In each classroom, rows of students in light blue, navy and plaid uniforms raised their hands quietly and spoke only when called on.

Discipline, Taharally said, is never a problem. The 261-student school boasts a zero incidence of violence. The average class size of 32 students would make some public-school parents and educators cringe, but Transfiguration’s leaders and parents see the classes as intimate and individualized.

If test scores are an indication, the environment is working.

Transfiguration’s pass rates on state English and math exams regularly outpace District 2’s public schools by 10 or 20 percentage points. In 2007, 91 percent of Transfiguration’s eighth graders passed the state math exam, compared with 69 percent of District 2’s eighth graders. Transfiguration’s students also do far better on exams than other local Catholic-school students.

For eighth graders, the test scores translate into high school acceptances. Out of 31 graduating students last year, 19 were accepted to specialized high schools, including seven to Stuyvesant and several to Bronx Science.

The arts are just as important as the other subjects, Taharally said.

“They’re an avenue to express yourself in other way,” he said, “to bring out talents that are hidden.”

In a third-grade music class on a recent morning, 33 students held shiny black recorders to their lips, waiting on the cue from teacher John Collis. At his signal, they burst into the opening measures of “Where the Bee Sucks” in a cacophony of high-pitched sound. The recorders warbled through the song, sometimes in unison and sometimes not, while Collis, with a white beard and a yellow bowtie, conducted.

At the end, Collis, 57, paused.

“Still not very good, is it?” he said. The kids laughed.

Collis focused their attention on several problematic measures, calling out the notes and repeating them until the melody emerged from the tangle of recorder sounds.

For the last 15 years, Collis has been the musical director of Transfiguration Church. This year’s third-grade class, he said, is particularly musical.

Several floors down, Corinne Grondahl was explaining the next phase of an art project to 15 fourth graders. The students sat at long tables in the school’s makeshift art room, which doubles as the cafeteria. Off to the side, several cafeteria workers were preparing trays of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.

The fourth graders were finishing captions to go along with the colorful masks they had just completed. The paragraphs, lettered neatly, told wild tales of witches discovering the mask or of a mask coming to life.

Some students express themselves better in writing, so this gives them another outlet for their creativity, Grondahl said.

Grondahl, 63, who wears her white hair pulled into a bun and has bright turquoise glasses, takes art seriously and expects students to do the same. The first graders learn to recognize famous paintings and name the artists. The second graders spent much of this school year learning techniques to draw pencil portraits. Many of their drawings of teachers and administrators bear a striking resemblance to the real thing.

Several of the portraits lining the school’s hallways show Taharally, characterized by metal-framed glasses and an easy smile. Parents described Taharally, 62, as the kind of principal who spends more time in the classroom with students than shut away in his office.

Taharally sees an example of the school’s moral values in the life of its founder, Father Felix Varela. A Cuban exile, Varela came to the United States in 1823 and founded the Transfiguration Church in 1827 to serve anyone in need, regardless of ethnicity or background. Over time, the church’s mission remained focused on disadvantaged groups in society, particularly recent immigrants.

While the financial situation of Chinese immigrants has improved, 65 percent of Transfiguration’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Fees for the classes, after-school program and summer activities total $4,790 a year, but the school has never asked a student to leave because his or her family can no longer pay. The school offers scholarship assistance to 33 students.

Many of the students come from Chinatown, but they also come from all over Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. A handful even make the trek from the Bronx, Staten Island or New Jersey. Often their parents work in Lower Manhattan or grew up in Chinatown.

Christina Fong drives her two children 40 minutes each morning from Sheepshead Bay to Transfiguration. Her in-laws are members of the Transfiguration Church and introduced Fong to the school. Even though she found a Catholic school several blocks from where her family lives in Brooklyn, the community at Transfiguration felt warmer. Also, Fong’s extended family lives in Chinatown.

While the Transfiguration School is connected to the Archdiocese of New York, it receives no funding from the Catholic Church — at least not directly. Ask the school’s administrators about where the funding comes from, and Father Nobiletti is the only one to respond without hesitating.

“God,” he said.

After a moment, Taharally added that tuition pays for most of the school’s programs and private fundraising provides the rest. The state Department of Education chips in $57 a student for textbooks and the city pays for English as a Second Language instruction.

Father Varela opened the school in 1832, five years after the church was founded. This was before public schools, when only the rich were guaranteed an education. Charity schools educated some of the poorer children, but the classes had a heavy Protestant bias and the textbooks included anti-Catholic references. Varela’s school suffered financial setbacks, and even closed for about 10 years, during which time Varela died.

The church moved to Mott St. in 1853, and three years later the school reopened. The classrooms at the free school soon filled with more than 1,000 students.

Father Nobiletti likens parishes at that time to ghettos: The parish provided all aspects of life for the congregants. It was where they socialized, where they celebrated major life events and where their children went to school.

The Transfiguration Church, which is still adjacent to the school, is the largest Chinese Catholic parish in the country. The five Sunday masses — one in Cantonese, one in Mandarin and three in English — attract 800 to 900 people a week.

As Nobiletti looks toward the Transfiguration School’s next 175 years, he sees one thing the school needs above all else: space.

“The school is full to the brim,” he said.

Next fall’s 3-year-old class in Transfiguration’s preschool at 10 Confucius Plaza, has a waitlist of 100 students, while the 4-year-old and kindergarten classes have waitlists of 50 to 75 students each. Parents come in to register their children almost as soon as they are born. Members of the church and siblings of current students receive first priority, but the school ultimately has to turn away many students they want to take.

In addition to needing classroom space, the school also lacks some basic features: a library, a nurse’s office and art and music rooms. Students use nearby Columbus Park as their gym, which is wonderful because it gets the children outside, Nobiletti said.

“On the other hand,” he added, “when it’s raining, we don’t have a gym.”

While the school’s leaders want to expand, they don’t want to move. The school’s Mott St. location is central to its identity, said Nobiletti, 65. He can imagine the school being successful in other Manhattan neighborhoods, like Battery Park City, but it’s not just about what is easiest for the school.

“It’s important to keep education in the Chinatown area alive,” Nobiletti said. He hopes to find space in a nearby commercial building and then transfer some of the classes there. But the school’s home base will remain at 29 Mott St.

“We’ve stayed here through thick and thin,” Nobiletti said, “the Civil War, World Wars, great fires. The school remains here. That lasts.”





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