Sunday, February 19, 2012


By Melissa Pamer, Daily News, Los Angeles/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services |

A large portion of the nearly $392,000 left to Pacoima Middle School by Khadijeh Haghani will be used to buy new equipment. The computers students are using now are more than 10 years old. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)

February 18, 2012  ::  When Pacoima Middle School Principal Marcy Hamm opened an envelope in her office last November, out fell a check for nearly $392,000. A donation had been expected, but the amount stunned her.

Telling her staff later about the gift to the school, she broke down in tears. The waterworks start up again when she retells the story.

"I cried in front of my faculty. It's just huge," Hamm said. "I get choked up when I talk about it now. This money will do so much for our kids here."

The bequest came from a donor who died last spring in Iran. Khadijeh Haghani had never been to Pacoima or heard of the school, where the students are overwhelmingly Latino and from low-income families.

Khadijeh Haghani, pictured right, had never been to Pacoima Middle School, but she learned of it through friends Harry and Azar Sagheb of Encino. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)>>

But Haghani's close friends, an Encino couple named Harry and Azar Sagheb, did know Pacoima Middle School -- they'd been longtime donors though they also had no personal connection to the school. A few years ago when Haghani was figuring out what to do with her wealth, the Saghebs encouraged her to donate to the campus.

"My husband said, 'I don't tell you what to do, but we are involved in Pacoima Middle School and the kids need that,"' Azar Sagheb said. "She said, 'OK, that's it, it goes to Pacoima Middle School."'

Haghani died of a stroke in her sleep at age 62, after a day of preparing for a Persian New Year's party. A complicated set of negotiations to get the money to the school ensued. The donation was officially recognized and accepted by the LosAngeles Unified School District on Tuesday.

The surprise donation from around the globe grew out of the 16 years of quiet support that the Saghebs have offered to Pacoima Middle School. Since 1996, when they saw a television news story about arsons that gutted one classroom and damaged another, the couple essentially adopted the school.

"The next day, we went and had a cup of coffee at the school," remembered Harry Sagheb, an 86-year-old retired biochemist. "We made them promise everything (had) to be replaced within two weeks."

The Saghebs footed the bill, knowing that without their donation it would take the school district many months to rebuild and replace charred instructional materials. After that, they began making annual donations to Pacoima Middle School -- replacing broken musical instruments, paying for air-conditioning units and tutoring services. Harry Sagheb said he had no idea how much they had donated over the years, but estimated between $12,000 and $25,000 annually.

Before Harry's back went bad, the couple used to take students on outings to museums, the theater and restaurants, exposing them to life outside Pacoima. Every Thanksgiving, they still donate a few hundred gift cards to families at the school.

They even put a few students from the community through college on private scholarships.

Hamm calls "Uncle Harry" Sagheb the school's "benefactor."

"Someone chose us," Hamm said. "That's what he wanted to do and he's continued to do it year after year."

The Saghebs, whose money comes from a medical diagnostic lab they ran and sold in 1989, downplay their contributions, saying they just recognize the need in a poor community and want to give the "smart kids" at Pacoima a chance.

"I don't have jewelry; I don't have a Rolls-Royce. I don't have any of those things because that doesn't satisfy me," said Azar Sagheb, 77.

Haghani had married a friend of the Saghebs who

was also in the medical laboratory business. All of them had American passports and citizenship.

Harry Sagheb said Haghani, whose husband had died a number of years ago, had spoken to her investment banker about the plan to donate funds to Pacoima Middle School, but it was never written into a will. After Haghani died, arrangements for the donation were made through a life insurance company, but getting the check required some delicate diplomacy -- and a lawyer familiar with Iran -- to obtain a death certificate.

The large chunk of cash will be used as needed to replace equipment, Hamm said, including computers that are more than 10 years old.

Pacoima Middle School is one of 488 low-performing schools in California that get special funding to keep teacher-student ratios low -- so it has not suffered the same teacher layoffs as some other LAUSD campuses, Hamm said.

School board member Nury Martinez, who grew up in Pacoima and represents the area, said the donation was well deserved.

"I'm very proud and happy for them," Martinez said. "I know they can use the money especially during this horrible financial crisis for public education."

The donation is eye-popping for a single campus, LAUSD officials acknowledged, but it's not unprecedented.

In 2007, Woodland Hills resident Israel Baran left more than $1.5 million to Aggeler High, a community day school and opportunity high school in Chatsworth where he had been a volunteer. The funds are dedicated to a new library that will be built by the end of next year.

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