For the last seven years, one local institution has drastically changed the lives of at-risk young men through a somewhat unconventional type of schooling.
The West End School, located at 3628 Virginia Ave., began in 2005 as a free, private, college preparatory middle school for boys, who live on campus throughout most the year. This fall, however, even more children, a total of 52, will be impacted by the school, founded by former Kentucky Country Day Headmaster Robert Blair and his wife, Deborah.
On Aug. 21, the West End School welcomed boys in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten to the newly-built wing of the elementary day school, which will add grades 1 through 5 over the course of five years. The school is currently dedicated solely to young men, due to their higher risk for academic failure, delinquency, truancy and incarceration, compared to the opposite sex.
“The elementary school is an attempt to keep kids on track, to not let them fall below the line,” Deborah said. “Kids come to us, some of them, two or three years behind in their reading or math scores. We address those (issues), the need for building up the skills, in the three years they’re here. Most of them (graduate) at grade level or better and go on to some of the finest schools in Jefferson County.”
Graduates of the West End School have been offered more than $2 million in scholarships to many of the top high schools in the state. School admission is open to boys on free or reduced lunch, who are capable of doing academic work at the grade level or above and who would benefit from a safe environment.
“Everything we’ve heard about the school seems to be positive and I’ve heard a lot of people talk about it, and I’m excited about it because we need a change in our community, and hopefully it’ll start with our kids,” said a tearful Rositta Mitchell, as she and her husband, Robert, dropped their four-year-old son off at his first day of elementary school.
While the Mitchells will reunite with their son after school, children who attend the West End boarding school only see their families on the weekend, from Friday afternoon until around 6:30 p.m. Sunday, when they return for study hall.
For the children in the boarding school, Robert and Deborah show both loving care and strict discipline. They also afford the students many travel opportunities, to such places as New Orleans, New Hampshire, Boston and New York City, to allow them to see a side of the world they’ve likely never seen before. The couple initially ran the West End School themselves, but have since added a staff of about 15. One instructor, Ben Payne, lives on campus with a 15-month-old daughter and his wife, who serves alongside him as dorm parent, teacher, coach, or whichever role may be needed at the school.
“My wife and I started coming down, volunteering, playing basketball and eating dinner with the kids, and one thing led to another, I started teaching classes, and we moved in here,” said Payne, a former student at KCD now in his fourth year with the West End School.
“For a young kid who doesn’t have much structure or stability in his life, the school offers that and you just become integral parts of their lives, even for our alumni we still keep in touch with them,” he continued. “We’re just blessed to be here.”
There is no charge for room, board or tuition at the West End School, and all expenses are paid through donations from individuals, foundations and corporations. Churchill Downs, presenting sponsor of The Voice-Tribune’s 2012 Best Dressed, chose the West End School as the Aug. 25 fashion event’s benefitting charity. A portion of Best Dressed ticket sales will go toward the school’s fund.
“The West End School provides wonderful, life-changing opportunities to young men in our community who would otherwise be considered at risk, and our company believes this still-young school is one of the brightest jewels in Louisville’s education community,” said Dana Johnson, Churchill Downs’ director of community relations. “The faculty and all who support the West End School are performing a great service to both these young men and our community, and we are very pleased that the school will be among the community institutions that will benefit from the charitable dollars generated by the Voice-Tribune’s ‘Best Dressed’ event.”
Through the support from Best Dressed and the entire community, West End School will continue to thrive, improve their campus and provide the best curriculum and structure for the children of our city’s future.
“This school has thrived because of this city and the people who live in it that have been most generous, not only with their money but their time volunteering,” Deborah said. “We have many, many wonderful volunteers who keep coming back. They’re here week in and week out. This Best Dressed effort is kind of exemplary of that. We are nothing without the help from the city.”