Nanette Light | Dallas Morning News | May 19, 2017
▲ Aunt Dung Tran (left) receives a kiss from salutatorian Han Bao Tran, as valedictorian Tran Bao Tran and No. 3 ranked student Ngan Bao Tran pose for a photo after Evolution Academy's graduation Thursday.
For the Tran sisters, life happens in threes. Even on their graduation day.
Three faces sore from grins that won't fade. Three sets of hands that don't stop clapping. Three sets of arms that wrap friends in tight hugs. Three heads of long, silky hair that swing beneath black caps. Three sets of heels that thud up the stage ramp.
Three names called, one right after the other.
Born identical triplets, 18-year-old sisters Tran, Han and Ngan Tran graduated from high school Thursday night ranked one, two and three in their class — their grade-point averages separated by only one one-hundredth of a point.
"We didn't expect any of us to be in the top three. Or even in the top 10 percent," said Tran Bao Tran, who is this year's valedictorian. Her sisters, Han Bao Tran — the oldest — is the salutatorian and Ngan Bao Tran — the youngest — is ranked No. 3 among 148 graduates from Evolution Academy. The Richardson-based public charter school is part of a network of dropout recovery centers with additional campuses in Houston and Beaumont.
"But, I'm here," Tran said before the graduation ceremony at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland. "I see why people call it the great America."
Living the 'American Dream'
The graduation is a milestone the sisters didn't think possible after dropping out of Berkner High School in Richardson ISD a couple of years ago.
In 2012, the Trans — sisters with big grins and easy laughs, the kind of kids who say "please" and "thank you" — immigrated to the U.S. to join their dad in Nevada. Their parents separated while the girls were in elementary school.
The move on the brink of high school meant separating from their mom, who remains in their native Vietnam.
But the sisters came to the U.S. for an education, for the "American Dream."
Growing up in Vietnam, their mom — after long shifts working in a bakery — told them stories of possibility in the United States, Han said in her salutatorian speech. As a little girl, she imagined the country half a world away as "pink" and "fluffy" — a "pink paradise."
But when the sisters arrived in America, the language was confusing. The culture was new.
They were overwhelmed after their move to North Texas a week before their junior year in 2015. Their schedules were loaded with advanced placement and honors courses.
They feared failure. So they stopped showing up for class.
"We wanted straight A's. You know, typical Asian stuff," Tran said, explaining they'd rather skip school than fail to ace a test.
One day of missed school turned to two days. Then a week. Then months.
The sisters shut themselves in the Garland master bedroom they share, sleeping for daylong stretches to block the reality of shirking their academic responsibilities.
"Deep in the back of my mind, I knew what people would think about Asians not going to school," said Tran, the middle sister. "I was scared of criticism and judgment from people. Especially, how would my parents feel? Disappointed, ashamed in their daughters."
A second chance
After about six months of missed school, an administrator at Berkner pointed them to Evolution Academy. Founded in 2002, the charter network has graduated more than 2,000 students, many of whom had dropped out of traditional public schools.
"We target those students that are having a rough time; those students that may not fit into the traditional instructional setting," said Cynthia Trigg, founder and CEO of Evolution Academy. "And it's shown to be successful."
Unlike typical high schools, Evolution students attend school for four hours, completing courses on computers to graduate on time as if they never skipped school. Unlike the Tran sisters, some students have battled drug addictions, served time in prison or struggled as teen parents.
The academy is one of a number of dropout recovery schools that have emerged across the state. More than 100 charter schools in Texas serve students who have dropped out or are at-risk of dropping out, according to the Texas Charter Schools Association.
For the Tran sisters, Evolution Academy was their second chance, they said. Their graduation brought their aunt from Vietnam with her cellphone poised to capture their walks across the stage. Their mom, unable to attend, watched a live stream of the big day on her computer in Vietnam.
In the fall, the triplets plan to attend Richland College and later transfer to a four-year university to study business.
With a very American can-do spirit, they talked excitedly — often cutting each other off or talking over one another — about what they've learned since they returned to school.
"You have to put your mind to it," Han said. "No one is going to give it to you. You have to go, and grab it."