Siblings help East Bay schools thrive

November 9, 2009 7:59:14 PM PST
Two siblings who came to the United States as immigrants are making a lasting impact on students in the East Bay.

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You won't find Tram Nguyen in her office. She's one of those principals who never stays put; she's always busy talking to parents.

Her days at Encompass Academy in Oakland are long.

"I get home by 10:30 p.m. on average," she said.

She helped open the school in 2004. Recent test scores show Encompass was one of the 10 most-improved schools in Oakland.

Nearly at the top of the most improved list was East Oakland Pride Elementary -- lead by Viet Nguyen, her older brother.

"It's funny because we are siblings and there is always that kind of internal rivalry," Viet said.

Viet received a law degree from Cal, but changed his career plans to become a teacher.

Tram has a Masters degree from Harvard. Like his sister, Viet also spends time in the classroom and comes up with ways to reward kids who do well by handing out "reward bucks."

"It's really to recognize positive behavior in students and they save them up and every Friday they get a chance to go to what we call a store and buy small rewards for themselves," Viet said.

To fully appreciate what these two siblings have achieved through the years, you have to start in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.

Their father was against the communist government and became a political prisoner. He spent three years in a camp in the jungles of Vietnam.

"What I remember of my father was when we would hike through the jungles, when we would have two occasions to visit him," Tram said.

Her father was eventually released. Still he knew, under the communist government, there would be no future for the children of political prisoners.

That's when the family escaped using false Chinese passports. It was 1978 Viet was eight years old and Tram five. At sea, the family and other refugees quickly fell into the hands of pirates who stole what little they had.

Tram quickly hid her mother's wedding ring in her pajamas.

"My mom had been separated from my dad all this time. So I just knew I didn't want that to happen," she said. "And they never checked me. And so, I wear it now you know. In terms of my 5-year-old brain I really got sort of sense of the risks people take for a better life, you know."

After that ordeal, the family spent eight months on an island for refugees, until they were allowed to come to the U.S.

They eventually settled in east San Jose -- knowing no English. They had, though, relentless parents and an aunt who knew the value of an education.

Holly Babe Faust is with the Oakland Small Schools Foundation.

"I think these guys proved that you can come into the United States as immigrants and you can get a great education and they wanted to just ensure that would happen for all kids," she said.

Their father still lives in San Jose and that aunt is still a part of their lives. Their mother died a few years ago, knowing her children had picked a most honorable profession.

"Wherever she is, I hope she knows that she has clearly has done more than her part with us. What we are able to give to our communities now came from her, for sure," Viet said.

ABC7 salutes Viet and Tram -- brother and sister, Oakland principals who are helping underserved kids to overcome obstacles in order to get ahead.

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