BEYOND THE SCHOOLHOUSE DOOR:
We expected to open a school. We didn't expect to gain a community.
Parent-founder, Platte River Charter School, Douglas
A WATER PIPE burst days before Colin Powell Academy was scheduled to open in the poorest ZIP code of Detroit, flooding the entire building. It was a charter founder's worst nightmare. Launching the school would be hard enough — hiring and training teachers, completing the paperwork, and attending to thousands of other details — without such a disaster. But everyone pitched in to rescue the school. The flooding prompted an extraordinary round-the-clock community effort to pump and mop and paint. The crisis engaged parents, students, and others from the neighborhood, including youngsters who had been in trouble with the law. Some say the local homeless folks guarded the school from vandals while it was being refurbished. If the community had not mustered mops, buckets, sweat, and toil, Colin Powell Academy would not have opened in August 1996. But open it did.
Today, this charter school enrolls about 220 young African-American children from a neighborhood rife with liquor stores, bars, graffiti, and drug dealers. Housed in an abandoned Catholic high school leased from the Archdiocese for a dollar a year, Colin Powell Academy emphasizes character development, curricular basics, and community leadership. Plans call for it to add a grade a year — it is now K-7 perhaps all the way through high school.
This school was the dream of Pastor Ellis Smith of the Jubilee Christian Church, who envisioned a neighborhood school "rising out of the ashes and becoming a pillar of strength in a downtrodden community." Pastor Smith has "a passion for children [and saw] a dire need for a new educational paradigm that was more student-focused and less focused on fi