|Khadija Ali, a math teacher at Holy Family Cathedral School in Orange, stands in her classroom Thursday morning holding the state and national first place math awards her students won.|
At 11 a.m., the silence in Khadija Ali's advanced math class is broken only by squeaking markers, creaky sneakers on jigging feet and the drone of the AC battling 90-degree heat.
Finally, Ali's voice rings out:
Six whiteboards hit the air.
Ali inspects their work: "Correct. Correct...
Nick Peabody, 14, forgot to simplify his answer. She takes him through the explanation and, moments later, they launch into the next problem - one of dozens these middle-schoolers will complete in this 60-minute period, and just a fraction of the pages of problems they'll get for homework over the upcoming spring break.
All that work pays off.
Ali's advanced math students at Holy Family Cathedral School in Orange have dominated the Mathfax national competition since she was hired in 2002. For eight years running, Ali has put a student in the top 10. This year, nine of the top 10 competitors were Ali's students.
Margaret Harlow, principal at Holy Family, describes Advanced Math thusly: "It's another zone in there."
Ali's students have gone on to the Ivy League and some are on their way to becoming engineers or scientists. And other educators at Holy Family talk about her class as if it's a kind of minor miracle.
But to get there, Ali, a Muslim teacher at a Catholic school, has managed a miracle of her own.
Though conflict over perceptions of the Muslim faith have touched as close to home as Disneyland and UCI and the Villa Park town plaza, a different narrative has emerged at Holy Family Cathedral - two cultures finding harmony amid strife.
To get there, they needed a common denominator. They found it in Ali.
The only hint that Holy Family Cathedral School has arguably one of the best math programs in the country is in the dozens of plaques that occupy most of the wall to the right of Ali's whiteboard. What's the secret?
Ali's accented voice reveals it crisply.
In India, where Ali was educated, discipline is key to academic success - and academic success is key to everything else.
With 40 kids packed in a class, if there was no discipline, no one learned. If you didn't learn, you couldn't pass the exams that weed out most students trying to get into good high schools and universities.
Only a sliver (in 2005, just 7 percent) of India's college-age population gets in to universities. In a nation where about a third of the population is poor and hunger remains rampant by Western standards, education is, quite literally, a matter of survival.
Graduating from that system (University of Mumbai) helped make Ali the most intimidating teacher at Holy Family.
Just six kids get into her advanced math class. To get there, they must score above 80 percent on a test that Ali obtains from Cal State Fullerton.
"I have to make sure that they can handle the work," Ali says.
And the work is unceasing. Ali calls her teaching style 'drill and skill.' Next to her desk, there's a cart sagging with the weight of binders full of transparencies and teaching materials.
"She doesn't just give you homework... she makes you learn it," says former student Brittany Duhn, now a sophomore at Foothill High School in Tustin.
"She's small, but intimidating."
She's also caring.
Justine Mationg didn't pass Ali's entrance test the first time she took it. Or the second.
But after a summer spent working with Ali, Mationg passed the test and got into Advanced Math, where students work as a team, often explaining problems to each other.
This year, at 14, she won the Mathfax competition.
In 2002, when she interviewed for the job at Holy Family, Ali came qualified. She had 26 years of experience, and had been nominated Teacher of the Year in her previous job, at John Muir Middle School in Los Angeles.
Principal Harlow says Ali was exactly what she was looking for.
But she also knew Sept. 11 was still fresh on the minds of every American, and that she had to consider the possibility that some parents wouldn't like the idea of entrusting the best minds at the school to a Muslim teacher.
"I had some concerns," Harlow says.
The fear even reached Ali in the parking lot on the day of her interview. She left her hijab in her car.
But Harlow says she was interested in another lesson. She didn't want Holy Family to be a sheltering, monocultural school, the kind she'd seen elsewhere. And, after talking with her priest, Harlow took the risk.
"We should teach children to respect everybody. That's part of Christ's message too."
The initial reaction to Ali wasn't all positive. But soon, Harlow, began hearing from parents ecstatic over their kids' math scores. And she'd see Ali in her hijab cheering on students at softball games and cooking Indian food on Olympic Day, a school event that celebrates world cultures.
Now, Ali and Harlow have struck a balance respecting both faiths.
At lunch, Ali performs her daily prayers. But, later in the day, she might attend Mass, too, as part of a school function.
In conversation, Ali is quick to point out that chapters in the Quran discuss Jesus and Mary. In Ali's world, religion isn't divisive.
"There's a lot of similarity," Ali says.
Ali was educated in Catholic schools alongside Catholics, Hindus and Muslims. She's taught math to African Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles and to Muslims at Orange Crescent School, where non-Muslim teachers wear hijabs to make Muslim students and parents comfortable.
"We are all children of God," she says.
Growing up, Ali learned eight languages. English isn't her best, but it's not the one she needs in the classroom.
As Harlow says: "She speaks math."
Source: The Orange County Register