Construction of the $2 million Darrell Griffith Athletic Center will be the latest sign of success at the West End School.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Darrell Griffith won a Kentucky state championship at Male High School, the 1980 NCAA title at the University of Louisville and the NBA rookie of the year award a year later. Griffith believed all of those things were possible from the first moment he dunked a basketball at the Virginia Avenue Elementary School gymnasium.
Here is something Griffith did not believe was possible:
His beloved elementary school would lapse into disrepair and eventually close – and then reopen as an ambitious community-based boarding school that will break ground on a sparkling $2 million athletic center Tuesday morning.
Make note of the official name – the Darrell Griffith Athletic Center at the West End School.
Tears settle in Griffith's eyes as his memory dances back to his parents, siblings, friends and others that grew up within walking distance of 36th and Virginia Avenue, site of the campus undergoing a remarkable transformation.
"You'd never think that someone wants to name a building after you," Griffith said. "That's the ultimate.
"No matter what athletic ability that you have, you've got to have an education. You've got to find your way in life. And it starts at this level. It started for me at Virginia Avenue Elementary School. We plan on bringing that back here. That (the gymnasium) is going to be the big magnet to let everybody know what we're doing here is major."
"Darrell is one of the figures in this city who is a unifying personality," said Robert Blair, the West End School founder and administrator. "The hope is that this building will be a unifying presence in the community as well. It will be a gym, but it will be a symbol and it will be a beacon that people will come to about the vitality that exists in this area."
Blair and his wife, Deborah, actually illuminated the beacon seven years ago. A career educator, he retired in 2001 after serving as the headmaster at Kentucky Country Day for 11 years. He loves the Boston Red Sox. He loves to fish, especially for trout. He loves to travel. He loves teaching.
"You can only fly fish for so long," Blair said. "I grew up with parents who taught me that it was important to live a purposeful life, in the way that you were able to define it. I've been a teacher all my life. All I've really done is move from one end of town to the other. I'm doing everything I've even done professionally as a teacher, I'm just doing it in the West End."
The West End School began in a house at 17th and Chestnut streets in 2005. There were three boys. The school moved to 36th and Virginia several years ago. The school system had turned the facility over to a local church, which made it available to the Blairs and the school's board of directors.
The neighborhood is, in a word, challenging. Protective bars line the windows and doors of most neighborhood homes and businesses. The campus is securely gated. Blair can stand outside the school and point to locations where shootings have occurred. According to statistics on the Metro Louisville Police web site, there have been nine assaults, six thefts, six acts of vandalism, an auto theft and a burglary within 1-½ miles of the school in the last week.
Summer cleaning projects include sweeping away bullet casings that land on the roof in surprising numbers after neighbors fire their weapons into the air on New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July. Blair said most students who are recommended to the school come from single-parent homes. A few lived with grandparents. Several have parents who are incarcerated.
"The thing that I like seeing is whenever there is not violence in this area," said Sameer Rhodes, a sixth-grader at the school. "I like seeing the neighborhood peaceful, seeing people get along together."
Rhodes, 12, is one of 20 middle-school students who lives with the Blairs in the full-time boarding school. Blair has teamed with local businessmen like Paul Perconti, Junior Bridgeman, Rev. Russell Awkard, Alice Houston (another Virginia Elementary Student), and many others to generate money through donations and community grants so the West End School could add another 30 or so kindergarten and first-grade day-school students this year.
The plan is to add another elementary school class every year until the West End School becomes a thriving K-through-8 facility. The boarding school is expected to grow to at least 40 students within five years.
"The mission is to take young boys' lives and give them a level playing field in the community where they can have the same things that you and I had -- not just in education, but in development and discipline and opportunities," said Perconti. He worked with Blair at KCD and serves as the chairman of the board for the project.
Academically the school has delivered the results the founders anticipated. Its graduates have been offered more than $2 million in scholarships to attend high schools across the area.
But a complete educational experience demands opportunities outside the classroom. The West End School has a basketball team. But it is a basketball team whose homecourt has been a slab of asphalt tucked in a courtyard between two wings of the school.
Griffith arranged for a pair of adjustable outdoor basketball goals to be installed. Blair encouraged Perconti to raise the money for lights last year. You can imagine the joys of practicing basketball outside in January – especially when Blair, who also serves as the team's coach, will allow his players to wear hats and jackets, but not gloves – even if they have to shovel snow before practice.
"(A gym) means we will get out of the cold," said Ahmad Neal, the team's point guard. "Sometimes my hands are freezing."
Soon Neal, also 12, will be able to take off his gloves. Perconti, Bridgeman, Griffith and others have raised half of the $2 million needed to built the 11,800 square-foot facility, which will feature a basketball court, volleyball court, locker rooms, a weight-training area and seats for 500 fans.
Ground will be broken Tuesday. Wade Houston, Griffith's coach at Male High School, will speak at the ceremony. Serious construction will begin next spring. By late next year or early 2014, the Darrell Griffith Athletic Center will be available for the West End School basketball team to play its first home game.
Look for murals of Griffith to glow on the outside of the building. Consider it an invitation to the community and thousands of people who drive past the facility on the Shawnee Expressway to inquire about the remarkable work being done at 36th and Virginia Avenues.
"These kids couldn't have a better role model than Darrell," Bridgeman said. "He went to school there. He is from there."
"If you're going to hold up someone and say, ‘He's from here. Look what he became in life and look what he accomplished in life. It's not a matter of where you're from.' You couldn't have a better person than Darrell Griffith. It's great that we can honor him that way. He deserves it and the kids need to know about him."