Exceedingly proud of his school, Piscal invited some friends of his who were teaching in the inner city to come see a student play. Not just any play, either, but a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed on Rollerblades and counting Tori Spelling, who was then a student, among the cast. The audience was studded with celebrities, including Steven Spielberg, Kate Capshaw, and Meryl Streep. After the play, Piscal smilingly approached his friends to bask in their compliments. "They said, 'Mike, we're about to throw up,' " he recalls. Rather than being impressed, his friends were stunned, even appalled, by the obvious expense that had gone into the production - it cost $150,000 - particularly when they compared it with the struggle their school endured to provide basic supplies and materials.

Their reaction prompted Piscal to question what he was doing with his life. Then, after the L.A. riots in 1992, he had an epiphany. "I've learned so much, and it's been a blast here, but I don't think Meryl Streep's kids need me anymore. I think Spielberg's kids will get by without Mike Piscal in their lives," he decided. He resolved to make a dramatic change. "I'm going to open a ­Harvard-Westlake­ in the hood," he proclaimed.

By his own admission, Piscal was clueless when he first founded the Inner City Education Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs the View Park Prep schools. Not surprisingly, he floundered the first two years, between 1994 and 1996, as he tried to raise money, find facilities, recruit board members, write a business plan, and do all the necessary legal work. Money was always tight. Approaching foundations and potential financiers always yielded the same answer, recalls Stephen C. Smith, the chairman of the Inner City Education Foundation. "It's like when a company starts out and nobody wants to give them money because they're not successful yet," says Smith, who is a cofounder of the Seaport Group, an investment company. "As soon as you're successful, everyone wants to give you money."