Fighter Pilot’s Dream of a Virtue-Based School Takes Flight
Suppose you were really upset with your children’s school, both the academics and the absence of any moral framework.
You begin looking for a private school within driving distance of your home. Some of these you reject out of hand as being too much like the school your family is leaving. A few, especially those offering a classical education, appeal, but they’re either full with a long waiting list or simply too far away. You’re well aware of the homeschool option, but both you and your spouse work full time.
At this point, most of us would throw in the towel and, perhaps unhappily, pick the best option available to us.
Not Ali Ghaffari.
Instead, he decided to find a way to open his dream school.
The Man in Brief
Born in Vermont to a father of Iranian descent and a mother with French Canadian roots, Ghaffari attended public schools until ninth grade, at which point he entered Phillips Academy Andover, a prestigious private boarding school north of Boston. From there, he enrolled at Colby College in Maine, where he majored in biology with the intention of going to medical school and becoming a surgeon.
But the thought of spending so many more years in a classroom dissuaded him. He wanted a life of action and so, following his graduation, joined the Navy. After his training, he served for 20 years as a fighter pilot, retiring as a lieutenant commander in 2021.
While in the Navy, Ghaffari encountered his future wife, Mary. They met at a baggage claims area in the Fresno, California, airport, struck up a conversation, became friends, and within a few months were dating. Today, they live in Maryland along with their three daughters: Reyna, 14; Kaelyn, 13; and Natalie, 10. Mary works as a clinical pharmacist in several capacities, including hospital intensive care units where, as Ghaffari said, she acts as “a walking drug encyclopedia for doctors.”
While on his last tour in the Navy, Ghaffari taught courses in ethics and leadership to midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. On leaving the service, that work and his passion for teaching led him to begin coaching others in leadership. Today, he works as a certified Executive Coach for the Frassati Company, a faith-based consulting and coaching organization.
On October 13, 2017, while on a family road trip to Ohio, Ghaffari was listening to an audio book, Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option,” when the author brought up the turnabout of a failing Catholic school after it had returned to the ideals and practice of a classical liberal arts curriculum. “Hearing this story triggered in me a desire for this kind of education for my own children,” Ghaffari later recounted. “I wanted my children to recognize Truth, Beauty, and Goodness—to see God clearly—and to love school.”
As Ghaffari and Mary searched for such a school for their children near their Maryland home, he became even more drawn to classical learning, visiting several classical schools in the area and attending the annual conference of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. A classical education, Ghaffari soon discovered, meant teaching by traditional methods and providing students with a sound moral foundation accompanied by rigorous academics. Its goal, as Ghaffari said, “is to form people for life rather than simply train them for a job.” Unfortunately, such schools were either too far from their home or had no space for new students.
Through his reading and conversations, however, Ghaffari had forged a vision for the sort of academy he wanted for his daughters and other young people. It was then that he decided to start such a school himself.
Transforming dreams into reality brings challenges, and the founding of a new school proved no exception. To meet certain legal requirements, to find parents, teachers, and donors willing to risk participation in such a venture, and to locate a building for the school, were daunting obstacles.
Yet through prayer, perseverance, and the practice of the leadership skills he had taught others, Ghaffari overcame one challenge after another, including the shutdowns of the pandemic. In one instance, when he learned that a family was considering withdrawing from the school before it opened, he called the parents and pleaded with them to stick with the project until they reluctantly agreed.
Ghaffari and his band of parents and educators continued meeting and probing for solutions until, in 2019, Divine Mercy Academy opened in Pasadena, Maryland, with 20 students. Today, 110 young people in grades K–8 are enrolled in the academy, which is staffed by devoted teachers and a supervising board.
All in the Family
In addition to its classical approach to such subjects as math, reading, science, and art, several elements set Divine Mercy Academy apart from many other schools.
Ghaffari spoke of the special role parents play at Divine Mercy. Unlike so many of our public schools, the academy actively encourages parents to ask questions, to visit the classrooms, and to share suggestions with the tutors—that term is used instead of teachers—and administrators. “Our philosophy is that we are acting in conjunction with parents,” said Ghaffari.
Eighty percent of the academy’s teachers are also parents of students, Ghaffari pointed out, adding that most of them have degrees in the areas they teach. “Those tutors are here because of their vocation,” he said. “They make less than they would elsewhere. They’re here because they love what they’re doing.”
Even in so short a time, the school, he said, has already become a community, a sort of extended family.
Faith and Virtue
On a Fox News feature interview, Ghaffari opened the conversation about Divine Mercy by stating his main reason for helping found the academy: “I want my kids to go to heaven.” That principle of teaching faith and virtue dominates the school’s website. One of the Fox interviewers, a homeschooling mother, seconded Ghaffari, saying that she tells her children, “My job isn’t to get you to Harvard. It’s to get you to heaven.”
Religion at Divine Mercy is “not just one subject within the curriculum, but the key to its unity and integration.” Students live their faith by attending daily Mass, praying the rosary, and attending various retreats. “This faith is contagious,” said Ghaffari, “and hones our culture in the school.”
On this same Fox News program, when asked to briefly outline the meaning of classical education, Ghaffari explained, “Classical education comes from the Greeks. The Greeks wanted to know, ‘What does a good life look like? How do we live our lives?’ And they came up with living lives of virtue, and asking the big questions, and living a life that is honorable.”
Divine Mercy Academy aims to help instill those virtues into its young students.
That this combination of faith, inquiry, and character development appeals to families and students can be readily seen in the academy’s enrollment, which has quintupled in just four years.
On a typical weekday, while Mary works as a clinical pharmacist, Ghaffari drives his three daughters 35 miles to the academy, then does his coaching work by computer and phone in a small room on campus. He also remains very much involved in the operation of the school.
“I’m essentially working two jobs,” said Ghaffari, and he credits Mary with making that possible. “Without complaint, and despite having her own professional job as a clinical pharmacist, she takes care of what’s needed—getting the kids fed, put to bed, running errands, and so on—giving me the space I need to make it all work.”
Meanwhile, his daughters have fallen in love with learning, often bringing classroom discussions to the supper table. Outside of their academics, Reyna loves reading science fiction and fairy tales. Kaelyn is the artist in this trio, while Natalie finds a creative outlet in crafts, recently making a Star Wars scene from a milk carton and clay. Ghaffari often joins his daughters in an after-school martial arts program.
In addition to all his activities, Ghaffari, along with his close friend Paul List, now has a book on the market: “Mount Doom: The Prophecy of Tolkien Revealed” (Freiling Publishing, 2022, 576 pages). At the end of “Mount Doom,” the two authors urge readers to “take responsibility for your own education” and to “live a life of heroic holiness.”
Ali Ghaffari, his wife Mary, and many of the others associated with Divine Mercy Academy are living out those exhortations.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.