The Good Doctor: William Chignoli, who spent the last decade constructing a safety net for local Hispanics, recently turned 70. But he's far from retiring.

The library in William Chignoli's cluttered basement is filled with books and mementos as diverse as their owner. An abstract from an international conference on HIV and AIDS rests on a shelf next to a dog-eared copy of Jesus: God and Man. A photograph of Chignoli and his wife at the White House with former President George W. Bush hangs on one wall; a picture of him offering Communion while dressed in flowing white robes is framed on another.

The library's location is emblematic of its owner's humility. Rather than display in his office the dozens of awards he has received, the diplomas and degrees that grant him the imposing title of Reverend Doctor Chignoli, he keeps them here. He frets that they will intimidate his less-fortunate visitors.

"I no want to show anything. No, too many people come see me have nothing," he says in typically off-kilter English. At age 70 Chignoli speaks seven different languages, and English takes a back seat to his native Italian and the Spanish in which he converses daily.

William Chignoli on the front steps of Acción Social Comunitaria's clinic on South Grand Boulevard.
Jennifer Silverberg
William Chignoli on the front steps of Acción Social Comunitaria's clinic on South Grand Boulevard.
Oscar Medina works with an Acción Social tutor at the El Torito supermarket on Cherokee Street.
Jennifer Silverberg
Oscar Medina works with an Acción Social tutor at the El Torito supermarket on Cherokee Street.

Chignoli is founder and executive director of Acción Social Communitaria, a nonprofit foundation that provides free mental-health care and other social services for immigrants, primarily Hispanics. He also founded La Clínica, a health center that offers everything from dentistry to gynecology at virtually no cost to its impoverished patients, thanks to the service of volunteer doctors and nurses.

Recently he set his sights on improving education in the Hispanic community. With the goal of shepherding immigrant families from preschool through college, his latest project is as ambitious as any he has undertaken.

It has not gone unnoticed.

In November Chignoli attended a conference at the Seattle home of Bill and Melinda Gates. The guest list included Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. Secretary of Education; the governors of three states; and dozens of nonprofit directors and academics from across the nation. Together they listened as the Gates Foundation unveiled its new strategy for improving the college readiness of underprivileged Americans.

"[The conference] was not talking only about access to college and scholarships," says Chignoli, who's now applying for a Gates Foundation grant. "It was saying we need to work with the community to organize a stronger bond between community organizations and the local educational system. It was very, very interesting."

How did this aging minister end up courting some of the most prominent figures in U.S. education?

"Is simple story," Chignoli says. "But I suppose it's long-time learning process. I learning every day now."

Acción Social's after-school tutoring program is housed on Cherokee Street in the drafty basement of El Torito, a Mexican supermarket and taqueria. Three days a week, Cecilia Soibel, a social worker for the organization, supervises a handful of Saint Louis University students as they work with children ages five through fourteen.

Instruction began in January, but so far only a few families are sending their kids. Seated alone at a plastic table, soft-spoken seventh-grader Oscar Medina types a short story for his English class on a sticker-plastered laptop. Across the room his seven-year-old brother Cesar studiously practices the alphabet while preschooler Hector torments his tutor with a tantrum.

The Medinas' mother, Angeles, is co-owner of the supermarket upstairs and chef at the restaurant that adjoins it. She says the tutoring has helped her eldest son, who does well in subjects like math and science but has always struggled with reading and writing. Now, she's trying to recruit more families to the sessions but is not having much luck.

"They need help, but they don't come," she says in Spanish. "They have an open door, but they are afraid to enter. They are afraid of the immigration service, or to ask for help."

Chignoli's latest project may still be in its infancy here, but it has already enjoyed much broader success elsewhere.

In 2006 Acción Social partnered with the University of Oklahoma and received federal funds from the No Child Left Behind Act to help the state departments of education in Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri improve services for migrants and students who speak English as a second language.

The curriculum the partnership created was family-inclusive. One program set out to "make each parent become their child's first teacher," and parents were offered seminars to help them better understand the public school system, learn English and adapt to a new culture.

Soibel, who heads up the initiative in St. Louis, often translates conference calls with school administrators and makes in-home visits to talk about family life and address any school issues. A tenacious Argentinean with close-cropped hair and a voice that snaps children into line, Soibel says the extra support is essential.

"You have to understand in the Hispanic community, especially among Mexicans, many come from small villages," she says. "They went to school through third grade; that's where it stopped for them. Some, they don't know how to write even their own name. They read poorly even in Spanish. So when their kid says, 'I don't want to go to school,' they say, 'OK.'"

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, Hispanics have a high school dropout rate of 22 percent — among the highest of any ethnic group. Of those who move on to college, barely half complete their undergraduate studies.

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