PHILADELPHIA — When she was in fifth grade, Jayda Pugliese realized “something was wrong.”
As a student at St. Mary Interparochial School in Philadelphia, she struggled to keep up in class. His world was silent, due to a progressive disease that was attacking his auditory nerves.
An adept lip-reader, Pugliese managed to get regular hearing tests until his condition reached crisis point and his grades began to drop.
Today, 25 years later, Pugliese is the director of St. Mary Interparochial and an internationally recognized educational leader whose work combines sustainability and spirituality.
“I’ve come full circle,” she said. “I let go and let God.”
Pugliese said she “felt extremely supported” at St. Mary Interparochial after her condition was fully diagnosed.
“They were so inclusive and so caring,” she said. “I had speech therapy the whole time, and they set up ASL (American Sign Language) classes.”
She also participated in the Deaf Apostolate of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, led by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Kathleen Schipani, whom Pugliese described as a “guiding light”.
And she found a heavenly mentor in Philadelphia-born St. Katharine Drexel, whose cause for canonization was confirmed by two healings of hearing-impaired people.
Pugliese credits the saint’s intercession with helping him slow down his own degenerative condition, allowing him to complete his studies.
“She became my boss,” Pugliese said. “For a long time my nerve damage stopped, and I always say it’s due to St. Katharine Drexel. I needed it to stop so I could finish school.
At the same time, Pugliese – who uses hearing aids – describes herself as “a deaf person in a talking world” and “an active advocate for deaf people”.
While at the former St. Maria Goretti (now Neumann-Goretti) High School in Philadelphia, she started an ASL program, got involved in youth organizations, and “kicked off” with her academics , building on the momentum she had gained in seventh and eighth grades.
At Holy Family University in Philadelphia, Pugliese earned her bachelor’s degree in special education and elementary education and her master’s degree in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) and literacy.
His teaching skills – honed in Philadelphia’s public and charter schools – quickly earned him professional recognition. In 2016, she received the Milken Educator Award (often equated with the Oscars for teaching) in Pennsylvania.
The timing was providential, since Pugliese had been temporarily forced to stop her doctoral studies at Holy Family University for financial reasons.
“I remember sitting in church crying,” said Pugliese, a member of St. Paul’s Parish in South Philadelphia. “I said to God, ‘I don’t know what your plan is for me, but I’m going to put it in your hands.'”
With the award funding a significant portion of her degree, Pugliese – who was later named the 2018 National Science Teachers Association Sylvia Shugrue Awardee and 2019 finalist for Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year – now expects to receive her Ph.D. next year.
Earlier this summer, she completed a week of collaboration at the Kansas-based Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes as one of the organization’s 2022 fellows.
Pugliese has traveled the world giving presentations and training on educational best practices, accessible teaching, and the integration of STEAM-based technology for classrooms.
And in the process, it also spreads the Gospel message.
“One of the biggest things I’m known for is merging the United Nations-created Sustainable Development Goals with the Corporal Works of Mercy,” Pugliese said.
St. Mary’s classrooms are the laboratory for this synthesis, she said.
With two grants from the Pennsylvania-based Ambassador’s Fund for Catholic Education, the school is creating a fleet of STREAM (science, technology, religion, engineering, arts, and math) carts for use in the classroom, while piloting a business training course that instills “servant learning, servant leadership and empathy,” Pugliese said.
Those qualities rule her own life, she said, noting that her hearing level “is absolutely at its worst right now.”
“I could go completely deaf in five to seven years,” Pugliese said. “I will trust God and let him decide what happens.”
Whatever the prognosis, she plans to stay in education.
“Maybe I can pave the way for more people with disabilities who want to move into leadership positions,” Pugliese said. “I want to show that it is possible.”
Christian is senior content producer for CatholicPhilly.com, the news site for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.