Dan Hall, chairman of the board at West End School, remembers sitting in on a middle school class when a teacher asked students, “What are you most afraid of?”
“I wasn’t surprised by many of the answers, where the typical middle schooler is afraid of snakes or the dark, but what did surprise me is that a number of those young boys said they were afraid of dying, of losing their grandma, of their brother or sister getting shot,” Hall said. “That opens the door for discussions about eternal life. It’s a wonderful opportunity for ministry. We want them to find security in Christ. We’re just sowing seeds of faith, and we hope those seeds grow.”
Founded in 2005 by Robert and Deborah Blair as a tuition-free boarding school primarily for at-risk boys from low-income backgrounds in West Louisville, the West End School only had three students to start.
Seventeen years later, it has grown to 135 students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.
“Too many of our young kids don’t have hope today, and that’s what we’re trying to do at West End School. We want them to reach their highest potential and be all that God made them to be,” Hall added.
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Hall became familiar with the West End School through his role as vice president of community engagement at the University of Louisville, from which he retired in 2017.
“All of my past experiences from law to teaching to administration to education that I was blessed in really have come into play in terms of being a resource to help lead this school forward in terms of its advancement,” he said. “I’m so passionate about this place. It’s just a delight to really be a part of this team and have them honor the resources and develop the curriculum. It’s been a blessing.”
After sharing his faith journey as West End School’s graduate commencement speaker a few years prior, Hall was invited to join its board to oversee the spiritual development committee in 2018.
“My family lived a few blocks from the West End School, so it was a full-circle moment to serve an institution that’s working with young people, particularly to help prepare them to take advantage of the opportunities I was blessed to have growing up,” he said.
Students at West End School are sometimes called “gap kids,” meaning there is an educational and achievement gap.
“It is someone who may come from a challenging environment in terms of where they might live, challenging circumstances in terms of their household, but they’re capable of achieving at a high level,” he said. “Our goal is to help every student reach their fullest potential.”
Hall does one-on-one mentoring and just spent some time reconnecting with a freshman at Trinity High School who graduated from West End School.
“He’s ready for that next step. He’s well-mannered and he’s sharp as a tack. He’s going to thrive. There are moments like that that light up my heart,” Hall said.
Hall said serving at the West End School is much more rewarding than simply being retired.
“I consider this my primary ministry because not only do we provide these students with a great education in terms of math, science, foreign languages, computer science, coding and the things they need to be equipped to go on to high school and be successful men, but we also provide them with a strong spiritual foundation,” Hall added. “We are teaching them the Word of God and Christian principles and hopefully we’re sowing seeds of faith in them.”
The school has a chaplain, and students attend a faith-based class throughout the week and a weekly worship service. Thirty-five middle schoolers live on campus from Sunday to Friday, as well as six alumni currently attending a local high school.
During the school week, middle school students get up at 6 a.m. and pass a room inspection. They have a morning devotional during breakfast at 7 a.m. and are in class from 8 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. After class, they have afternoon chores, then sports, dinner, free time and study hall.
Head of School Dwight Bransford said this schedule teaches students structure.
“It’s a full day,” Bransford said. “That early morning regimented schedule puts them on a path for the day, for the week and hopefully for the rest of their lives. That slows life down for you when you’re organized. It gets you out of that mode of scrambling everyday academically, socially and emotionally.”
Here are some of the highlights of the school:
>The “Makerspace” area, in partnership with the J.B Speed School of Engineering, has materials and supplies to help students develop blueprints and outline space to immerse in engineering ideas and activities.
>The Darrell Griffith Athletic Center is where students can play basketball, flag football, soccer or run track and field.
>The Gillian Barnett Theatre offers students a venue for plays, concerts and many other school activities.
History of West End School
The West End School was founded on faith.
“Robert and Deborah Blair stepped out on faith when they started this school. The whole history of this school is based on people stepping out in faith. We don’t have an endowment, so we have year-to-year fundraising to keep the lights on,” Hall said. “We really have to rely on the goodwill of institutions and individuals. The very fact that this school has been able to not only survive, but to continue to grow, is an affirmation of God’s blessing upon this place.”
The building, which is located off Virginia Avenue in the Chickasaw neighborhood, used to be a public elementary school.
Rev. A. Russell Awkard of New Zion Baptist Church was awarded the facility from the city. Awkard was unsure how to use the building, thinking it could be an outreach facility.
Around that time, Robert Blair retired from his position as head of school at Kentucky Country Day School and wanted to open a boarding school because he was struck by the significant achievement gap between low-income students and their higher income peers.
Southeast member John Fleming, who is on the board, was at that initial meeting.
“The first meeting where the idea was surfaced about having a West End School was at Southeast in October of 2003,” Fleming said. “Rusty Russell was the one who called the meeting. Three members currently on the board were a part of it.”
The West End School officially opened two years later.
“In the history of a boarding school, African-Americans from the South did not have equal access to a high school education,” Fleming added. “So, there were counties and communities in the South that when they finished elementary school, that was it. There was no high school. So, to get a high school education, you had to go to a boarding school. There were over 100 boarding schools in the United States in the South prior to 1954. Today, only four are still in existence and only one is a middle school, which is the West End School. So, you have a unique school here.”
The school’s motto comes from Robert Blair, who said, “To be a man is to be responsible.”
“We want them to be responsible men, husbands and dads and be grounded in Christian faith,” Hall said. “The world is much different than when I grew up in this community 50 years ago. The challenges that they face are vastly different than they were. The things that these kids see and experience are things that I didn’t have to see or experience growing up. They need to have a sense of belonging and feel someone cares for them. I really want to help the next generation of young people to come out of this community and take advantage of the opportunities I had growing up. My foundation was a spiritual foundation, and I got a solid education. That’s a winning proposition.”