Instead, Piscal had to rely on friends, family, and his credit cards to finance his dream. In order to get higher credit limits, he would fill out credit card applications saying he was a writer and a director of movies and was earning a projected $500,000 a year. He racked up more than $40,000 in credit card debt, was evicted from several apartments for failing to pay rent, and later landed in the hospital with serious heart troubles, the result of enormous stress and endless 16-hour workdays. Finally, in 1996, he was set to launch a summer camp and after-school program in the Crenshaw District. With the last $2,000 he could scrounge up, Piscal took out an ad in a local newspaper announcing his grand venture, what he saw as the first step to opening a school. The result: Seven kids showed up on the first day. "All this - two years - for seven kids," he recalls.

Still, Piscal did what came naturally: He persisted. Word soon spread that his summer program was good, and more kids ­started showing up. A natural storyteller and a persuasive salesman, Piscal - who, in the early days did everything from transporting the kids in his Ford Probe to cooking (and usually burning) their lunches - ultimately convinced many in the community that they could, in fact, have a private-school-quality institution in their neighborhood. "Mike is very charismatic. He's a person that is big: He dreams big, he thinks big, and he wants things to be big," says Carolyn Bain, who worked closely with Piscal early on and remains an assistant at View Park Prep. "We all caught on to that."

With growing community support and popularity, Piscal applied for and received the necessary charter to open up View Park Prep Elementary school in 1999; the middle school followed in 2001, and the high school in 2003. Next year, View Park Prep will graduate its first senior high school class. Besides receiving funding from the school district for each pupil, the Inner City Education Foundation, flush with its academic successes, now has backing from a wide range of philanthropies, including Michael and Susan Dell's family foundation, the New Schools Venture Fund, and numerous other foundations.