By Brent Owen
Deep in West Louisville, a neighborhood mired in controversy for its rise in violent crimes, there stands a beacon. Located at 3628 Virginia Ave. is the West End School. A pillar of inner-city education since 2005, it’s a private all-boys school that strives to build up the neighborhood’s at-risk young men. “The entire West End community knows that we’re doing good things here,” Paul Perconti, founding board chairman of the West End School says. “I think it’s a safe place in the West End community, which is a seed to tell the entire community that positivity can spread. Things can get better and safer. We’re a beacon. A shining light in the community.”
It all began in the early 2000s. Robert and Debbie Blair were living a tranquil, upper-middle class life. Two kids, son Patrick and daughter Katherine, were preparing to leave for college. Robert was head of school at Kentucky Country Day, and the Blairs were pillars of both the community and the church, living a normal, safe life in an East End suburb. Beneath the surface of everyday life, though, a passion was swelling – a passion to serve the West End neighborhood of Louisville, a section of town riddled with crime and poverty. They decided to reach out to the at-risk young men living amid the turmoil, young men it seemed society had already given up on.
And yet, the Blairs had not.
The Blairs called their friend Paul Perconti to find more funding for this venture, and in the process sacrificed their peaceful, easy life. Deciding to live with the students, they gave up the comforts they had spent their entire marriage establishing. They sold their house in the suburbs and moved into a dilapidated building at 17th and Chestnut, living with the children they were serving and thus establishing the West End School.
And this was all for a community of children they had barely even met yet.
Upon opening in 2005, the school consisted only of Robert and Debbie as administrators teaching sixth through eighth grade, and three students. By 2010, those three boys had increased to 15 students. And now, when the 2017-2018 school year goes into session, they will have 135 students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.
And while Robert was given the title head of school, make no mistake, this dream was a partnership between husband and wife, equal in every measure. Together, they have spent every single day side by side, working with and loving these boys.
“When we started 12 years ago, it was estimated in Louisville that there were 35,000 homeless African American kids,” Perconti says, “not living under a bridge, but homeless in the sense that they were ‘couch kids’ – kids who travel from their grandmother’s home to their auntie’s home to their pastor’s home. But they were never anchored in a home.” This was a fact that inspired the Blairs to not just bring a new school to the West End but institute a boarding school. “Hardly any of them knew their fathers,” Perconti furthers, discussing the dire circumstances from which the boys came. “And if they did know their fathers, they were likely incarcerated. Bringing them here gives them discipline and structure – and it changes their lives.”
A Building’s Rich History
It didn’t take long for that first dilapidated building on 17th Street to give way. So the West End School moved to its current home at 3628 Virginia Ave. in the old Carter Elementary facility – a building rich with history.
Built in 1923, there has been a school on the property since 1915. Initially, it was known as Virginia Avenue Colored School, a clear
product of Jim Crow segregation, serving the surrounding neighborhood. During the 1937 flood that devastated downtown Louisville, the school was temporarily used as a refugee center, housing families put out by the rising river.
The word “colored” was dropped from the school’s name in 1956 when the area was desegregated, a fact that didn’t much change that the school was serving predominantly African American students brought in from the surrounding predominantly African American-populated neighborhood. Finally, in 1973, the school was renamed after its original principal Jessie R. Carter. Many children have walked those halls over the years including a young Muhammad Ali, as well as current West End School board members Darrell Griffith and Dawne Gee.
It remained Carter Elementary until the school moved out of the building in 2000, eventually landing at its current location on Bohne Avenue, a move that left the historic building abandoned and destined to wither and decay until the Blairs stepped in with a higher purpose.
Now, over $10 million dollars has been spent renovating the school. The team has come together to build a state-of-the-art athletic facility on campus: The Darrell Griffith Athletic Center. “It’s not just a home for our boys because it’s their home court or a castle of athletics,” Perconti says of the facility, “but it’s a symbol to the West End. A symbol that serious, fresh money has been invested in their community.” They are also near completion on a state-of-the-art theater and music hall. And due to endless support and generous donations, the school has managed to do all of this and remain debt free.
The West End School is private. Students must be accepted (as of now, they take in 15 new students a year), who attend with no tuition. Since families don’t pay for children to attend and no government funds back the school, their entire operations come from community donations, grants and old-fashioned volunteers. “There are over 2,000 volunteers who have been involved in the school in some capacity,” Perconti explains in regards to the importance of citywide participation in furthering the school’s vision. “It’s a huge volunteer army in the community that supports our program. And that is a big part of our success. It’s a huge puzzle of blessings we’ve put together.”
Besides the 135 students who will be attending the West End School come August, alumni are already soaring. There are 50 graduates presently in local private high schools, many attending on full scholarships, and an additional nine students who have graduated high school and are now excelling in academic environments like Murray State University and Campbellsville University.
Though the students attend school for free, they do not succeed for free. The school’s curriculum is robust. They are in classes from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., and if you’re in middle school, you must live in residence on the school’s premises. There is study hall from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. every night and then lights out at 10 p.m. on the dot. It’s intense, but it’s a structure that instills knowledge and good habits in the students, lessons they carry with them through the rest of their lives.
The students can’t succeed unless they have the drive to do so. They also succeed on the backs of the Blairs, Perconti and the board of directors, all of whom are working diligently on a daily basis to keep the program moving forward – so much so that 40 percent of the school’s annual operations budget is donated by the members of the board of directors. It is truly indicative of serious commitment and passion from everyone involved. “Our mission was to rescue kids,” Perconti explains.
“Give them an opportunity to get educated – and, in a lot of cases, save their lives.” They also depend on donations from the James Graham Brown Foundation, Brown-Forman and countless other community leaders.
The End of an Era
Today, the school is at a crossroads. After 12 years, founder Robert Blair is retiring as head of school. On July 1, he will hand the reins of leadership over to Kelly Wright Henrion.
On June 11, the community gathered at the school’s Darrell Griffith Athletic Center to give Robert and Debbie a proper send-off and show its gratitude to a couple that changed so many lives. It was an outpouring of love for two people who sacrificed so much for the children. “We’re celebrating the last 12 years,” Perconti enthuses of the event. “We have a lot to be thankful for and a lot of people to appreciate for where we are, leading off with the Blairs.”
The ceremony was packed with students, members of the community, supporters of the school and local dignitaries. Board members like Griffith and Gee were present, as were Lonnie Ali, music powerhouse Linkin’ Bridge and Mayor Greg Fischer. Linkin’ Bridge treated the audience to a live performance, featuring songs from artists as varied as Celine Dion, Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Miley Cyrus. Between each tune, the group gave testimonies, showered love on the work being done at the school and cautioned the boys to make good decisions. After the performance, Mayor Fischer took the stage, personally delivering an award from the city to the Blairs, an award commending them for their work in the West End and their devotion to giving these boys a chance. Mayor Fischer told the energetic crowd, “This is what love feels like. This is what community feels like.” Later, Perconti announced a $1.5 million endowment to the school.
As Robert turns the role of head of school over to Henrion in a few weeks and collectively the Blairs take a step back from their singular vision, the school continues to keep its eyes on the horizon. “As I look at it, the next 12 years, the anticipation and excitement will far exceed the first 12,” Perconti contends. “We were a startup year one. We were a dream. We had no idea what we were doing. And then the 12 years after that, well, that’s the legacy, right? By then, you’re looking 20 years down the road. Our students are coming back and they’re doctors and lawyers or in a pulpit – whatever they choose. And they’re giving back to the community that gave them so much. It’s a cycle that could go on forever.” VT