What makes this achievement so compelling is that it has occurred in an area that, to say the least, is not known for its academic prowess. The Crenshaw District and much of the rest of south L.A. are plagued by many of the problems endemic to inner-city America, like gang violence - there were 454 ­­gang-related homicides in the area between 1999 and 2004. Failing schools, too, are the norm: An estimated 7 percent of incoming high school freshmen in south L.A. ultimately end up obtaining a college degree, with 60 percent dropping out without a high school diploma. View Park Prep and its students aren't immune to these troubles, either. A methamphetamine lab once caught on fire across the street from the elementary school, and Piscal has worked with gang leaders to convince them to leave his students alone.

Those problems seem distant, though, as Piscal drops in unannounced on a series of classrooms. At the kindergarten, children reach their arms high over their heads when asked who wants to show how well he or she can read. At the newly opened permanent campuses for the middle school and high school, students lead discussions about why kids join gangs. In each room, students appear focused and engaged. "This is like an oasis," says Rev. Timm Cyrus, pastor of the Angeles Mesa Presbyterian Church and a longtime supporter of Piscal's efforts at View Park Prep. "It's a quiet, comfortable, tucked-away place amid a sprawling, concrete, asphalt jungle."

A BIG DREAM

The impulse that led to the founding of View Park Prep occurred not far geographically from where Piscal now spends his days but a literal world away in most other ways. In the early 1990s, after graduating from Wake Forest University, Piscal was teaching English at one of L.A.'s most prestigious prep schools, Harvard-Westlake. He was well liked and spent his first few years soaking up all he could about effective teaching techniques and how a good school is run.