Victoria St. Martin is a writer and former journalism educator at the University of Notre Dame who lived in Indiana while reporting this story. Barbara Johnston is a photographer in Osceola, Ind. This story is set in Porter County (population 173,000), which has one semiweekly paper, the Chesterton Tribune.
It can happen in an instant: that moment when you go from not knowing what you want to do for the rest of your life, to having absolute certainty about it. For Tarik El-Naggar, it happened in 1970, when he was in the seventh grade working on a project for English class.
The assignment? Construct a reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre out of everyday objects. He built a 2-foot-diameter cardboard model — and an architect was born. “As a kid, you build model cars or rockets, but never a building,” says El-Naggar, who’s now 63 and co-owner of an architecture and interior design firm. “I don’t know what it was about the building. It had all the seating, the stage and the open roof — it was just awesome. It was a lightbulb moment.”
El-Naggar’s life came full circle when he added “high school teacher” to his résumé nine years ago — building a STEM curriculum with members of the administration at his former school in northwest Indiana. Inside his Valparaiso High School classroom, students have their own lightbulb moments by creating projects using ping-pong balls, cardboard, computers and 3-D printers. “Instead of just teaching the basics of architecture, I’m actually really teaching them design theory,” says El-Naggar, whose class is similar to what he taught at a nearby college.
And he’s gotten results: This year, his Valparaiso students swept the Indiana High School Architectural Design Competition, winning all nine awards out of 72 entries from eight schools — likely the best performance by a school in several decades. “That was really shocking,” El-Naggar says. “I feel like we have something unique.”
Valparaiso, a middle-class community about 55 miles southeast of Chicago, began incorporating more STEM courses into its curriculum about six years ago. A school official said the district wanted to place more emphasis on skills such as critical thinking, communication, creativity and problem-solving, and secured several grants from the county redevelopment commission to bolster tools across K-12 classrooms. The high school roughly ranks in the top 10 percent in Indiana, and its standardized test scores in reading and math significantly outpace the rest of the state.
“There are schools around the country that have great basketball programs. So, what do parents do? You move there because you want your son or daughter to go there,” says El-Naggar. “I want people to look at what we’re doing here and say, ‘My kids are going to be engineers, architects. They need to be here.’ ”
For high-schoolers who want to pursue architecture as a career, taking classes with El-Naggar is paying off: In the past three years, all five of the students who applied to university-level architectural programs have been accepted. “People were really impressed that I had already had this experience,” says Henry Youngren, now a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He won top honors at the high school competition for his design of a town hall that mimicked the old factories in the area; his version breathed life back into brick with arches and a green rooftop. “I’m really grateful to have this experience because many people do not get the opportunity,” he says. “It’s really guided me on how I want to live the rest of my life.”
Brandon Farley, an architect who is the chair of the high school design competition, says he has some records that date back to the 1970s and he’s “never seen anything where one school won all the awards.” It’s rare that judges see high school teachers with formal architectural training, he adds. With Valparaiso High School’s entries, he says, “you can see it immediately in the way the students address the problems and their solutions, and in the way that they talk about their designs. It really raised the bar on the competition.”
Seventeen-year-old Olivia Lozano received one of the awards. “It kind of got the ball rolling for me,” she says of the contest, for which she created a reading room filled with glass windows that opened to the outdoors. “Then it turns into a vortex and you’re down in El-Naggar’s classroom like four hours a day, and then you’re here after school, and then you’re here on the weekends and over spring break.”
El-Naggar says the lightbulb moment for his students today really happens when they first see a 3-D view of their building. “The ones that go, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ and they start walking through it and they’re telling other people, ‘Look at this’ — you can tell that’s their moment,” he says. “And for all the winners it happened at some point.”
El-Naggar’s father, a civil engineer and professor, cultivated his son’s enthusiasm for architecture at an early age by taking the boy to conferences all over the world as he lectured about his work. The younger El-Naggar was drawn to town planning, helping design communities around the Midwest, as well as in Maryland, California, New England and Canada.
When the University of Notre Dame, near South Bend, Ind., asked him to critique student projects, he met a fellow architect and professor who would help him get his first teaching gig, at Andrews University in Michigan. Once he started, he knew he’d discovered a second passion. Several years later, he was asked to fill in and teach architecture in his hometown at the high school. He welcomed the opportunity to teach five minutes from his home.
Now his fervor for teaching is gaining more attention, earning him a teacher of the year award from a national project-based-learning group this past fall. “We consider ourselves very blessed to have a teacher like him in the classroom,” says Nick Allison, the school district’s assistant superintendent for secondary education. “He is somebody who has decided to take the highest level of professionalism and bring it into our high school environment.”
El-Naggar plans to continue to inspire young architects in Valparaiso. He’s even taking 80 parents and students to France and Italy in 2022. He won’t get to see Shakespeare’s Globe on this trip, but hopes to see it for the first time in the next few years. Until then, he will build and help others learn how to build too.
For El-Naggar, the power of architecture comes alive in the “spaces where memories find their origin.” “They are your favorite room, the place you got married, your favorite restaurant,” he says. “I love creating those kinds of places.”