Posted on Fri, Feb. 10, 2006
School fulfills immigrant's dream
By JAN JARVIS STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER FORT WORTH --
An ornate crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling and floral chintz drapes cover the windows of this classroom in an east Fort Worth neighborhood. About a dozen teen- agers clad in gray and navy sit on metal fold-out chairs conjugating verbs in Spanish.
It's 11 a.m. and they have already worked their way through a biology class, a physics test and a short break to shoot hoops. This is how many of the days go at a school where the teachers outnumber the students.
Yet for the 19 faculty members of St. Ignatius College Preparatory School -- most of whom are related to the school's founder, Oanh Nguyen -- this ordinary day is a dream fulfilled. The school that he envisioned, where its 14 students learn biology from a surgeon or chemistry from a pharmacist, has become a reality.
In January, the Nguyen family opened the private nonprofit school in a white brick house on 4 acres. An open house is planned for noon to 3 p.m. Sunday at the school, 8109 Shelton Drive. The house was donated by 81-year-old Nguyen, who fled Vietnam in 1975. He brought his family to Fort Worth, where he worked as an upholsterer and urged his 12 children to seek refuge in learning. This school has become a means of fulfilling his wish to give back to the community. His lesson in generosity and compassion is not lost on his teachers, the students or their parents.
"The key is to teach with the heart," said Dr. Huy Nguyen, a Fort Worth neurosurgeon who interprets for his father. "Provide a good environment, and all children will be able to succeed."
Parents say that is exactly what makes the school unique. It blends the closeness of home schooling with academic credentials not easily matched by most parents.
"It's very touching to see somebody else love your child the way you do," said Alicia Jones, whose daughter Alana attends the school. "This is not like a school -- it's like a family."
It is a family in the truest sense. Of the 19 teachers, 14 are related to the eldest Nguyen. All volunteer their time, which extends beyond teaching to include chores such as painting rooms. Inside the house, snapshots of friends and family members cover the kitchen walls. Religious statues greet visitors at the front door.
Last year, they converted an Arlington house into a small school but quickly outgrew it. They eventually hope to have 100 students at their current location in Fort Worth. Tuition is $7,000, although some students attend on scholarships.
Parents are encouraged to volunteer at the school, which is accredited by the National Association of Private Catholic Independent Schools. Theology is part of the curriculum.
Admission is open to all high school students based on academic ability, an interview and parental involvement. Some students have been home-schooled; others have attended private, public or parochial schools. The 14 students come from various religions, ethnicities and economic backgrounds.
Students don't have to have above-average grades, but they do have to be highly motivated, Principal Victor Nguyen said.
"We believe God gave every child the same brain," he said. "When you are teaching with the heart, kids respond to you."
Chuck Huber, who teaches drama, said his 16-year-old son Joshua was not exceptional in math until he started attending classes at St. Ignatius.
"The next thing I know is, he's putting a white board in his bedroom and doing really well," he said. "They're all bright; it's just a matter of bringing it out."
As beneficial as this environment might be, there's no guarantee that it is better to have a surgeon teach science, said Judith Groulx, associate professor of education at Texas Christian University.
"There's this simplistic view that if you are good at something, you will be a good teacher," she said. "But there's a difference between knowing the content and making the content accessible."
The teachers at St. Ignatius say that in this close-knit environment, they are able to recognize a student's strengths and teach to them. When one student had a tough time in biology, the teacher observed that he was gifted as an artist and encouraged him to draw some of his assignments.
As doctors, the teachers make subjects such as biology come alive, Huber said.
"My son learned CPR from a surgeon," Huber said. "He would get a coach in tight spandex shorts in the public schools."
George Mondie said his daughter Wei-San, 15, has thrived at the school.
"Wei-San was already good at math," he said. "But here she is getting to be super."
Joshua Huber, who edits the school paper, the St. Ignatius Gazette, said the classes are more interesting than at other schools because the teachers delve deeper into subjects.
"They don't even need their textbooks," he said. "They think outside the textbook."
An environment without some of the restrictions of a public school can be very beneficial, Groulx said.
"Teachers complain they can't teach the way they want because they are afraid that when the multiple-choice tests come along, the students won't recognize the material, and so they won't do well on tests even though they know a lot," she said. "Imagine the freedom of not having to take a multiple-choice test."
Although the school has yet to have a graduating class, tutors have started preparing students for the SAT. The teachers will also work with colleges to make sure their students meet the university's acceptance criteria.
Students who are interested in medicine are encouraged to observe their teachers on the job as physicians.
Teachers mentor students starting in the 11th grade and follow them through college. Students participate in Boy Scouts or other organizations, practice martial arts and produce their own newspaper.
The teachers really want the students to succeed in life, Joshua Huber said.
"They are not doing this for a paycheck or as a side job they can add to their resume," he said.
Families who send their children to the school say it's the Nguyen family's dedication to give back to the community that's so remarkable.
"This Vietnamese family has been through a rough time starting life over here, and they feel they owe something to society," Mondie said.
"I think we owe them something."
IN THE KNOW St. Ignatius College Preparatory School
Open house: noon to 3 p.m. Sunday
Location: 8109 Shelton Drive, Fort Worth
For information: (817) 801-4801
STAR-TELEGRAM/R. JEENA JACOB
Ngoc Tran, 20, Mychal Curry, 16, Lisa Thomas, 15, and Zach Gee, 15, leave Spanish class at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in Fort Worth on Tuesday. The school is in a house donated by Oanh Nguyen, an immigrant who fled Vietnam in 1975.
Jan Jarvis, (817) 548-5423 firstname.lastname@example.org