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Our History


The idea for César Chávez Academy started with the death of lifelong Southwest Detroit resident and community volunteer Roland “Irish” Irwin in September 1995. In recognition of the Rev. Don Hanchon’s services and kindness during the time of Irish’s passing and funeral, Irish’s son Patrick offered to assist Rev. Hanchon in exploring options for the vacant and former parochial High School and Grade School owned by St. Gabriel Catholic Church. Patrick had attended St. Gabriel’s elementary school when it was still open and run by the Parish. Over time however, as the building sat primarily vacant, significant disrepair had occurred and the building was filled with numerous roof leaks, faulty plumbing, electrical system problems, sewer back-ups, failing boilers and windows, etc. With the approval of the Archdiocese of Detroit, Rev. Hanchon and Patrick began discussions with the Michigan Partnership for New Education (MPNE) about the possibility of establishing a charter school in the long-closed building. At the time these discussion began charter schools were a relatively new concept for the State of Michigan and very few existed nor was there a great deal of understanding at large on how to start a charter school or manage a charter school.

At the same time that Fr. Hanchon and Patrick Irwin were firming up their vision for the school and exploring management companies to operate this potential school, the Michigan Partner for New Education (MPNE), led by educator Bill Coats and businessman Albert Taubman. as well as several other business leaders, were seeking an opportunity to establish their first management oversight for a charter school. Prior to this time MPNE had been a quasi-public think tank that advocated for on behalf of charter school issues and concerns across the State of Michigan. Based upon presentations made by MPNE to Fr. Hanchon and Patrick Irwin, a decision was reached to assemble a tentative Board of Directors from the community at large to work toward the establishment of a charter school. Negotiations between the leaders of this initial Board and MPNE progressed quickly, and at the same time, this tentative César Chávez Academy (CCA )Board and the MPNE were able to make a successful overture to Saginaw Valley State University to grant a charter establishing the school. By the close of 1995 an agreement was reached between MPNE, the representatives of César Chávez’s first school board, and Saginaw Valley State University (chartering university of Chavez) to open the school. At the time of this agreement there were relatively few charter schools open, and César Chávez was one of the first handful of charter schools to begin these initial steps toward operations.


César Chávez initially opened with grades K through 3 and shared the St. Gabriel school building with the Vista Nuevas Head Start program. The founding principal of the César Chávez Academy was Dr. Carlos Lopez – whom later left and became Superintendent of the Oak Park School System. As César Chávez continued to grow, Vista Nuevas eventually left portion of the building they were using for another building just down the street from St. Gabriel's and César Chávez took over all of the available space in the St. Gabriel school building. In order to bring the school building up to code and to properly educate the students of César Chávez, the building required approximately $3.5 million of renovations which included fire prevention systems, gutting of the former high school on the first floor to turn it into a hall/cafeteria area, and numerous other infrastructure repairs. The costs of this renovation were covered by the Archdiocese of Detroit and repaid through rent payments from César Chávez to the Archdiocese of Detroit.


Our Name

In January 1996 a community meeting of over 100 residents was held in the school basement to announce the intention to establish a school and if there was interest in the community for establishing a school – gathering suggestions for a school name. This first meeting was held prior to a school board having been established and was led by Fr. Hanchon and Patrick Irwin. At this meeting the residents unanimously supported the establishment of a charter school in the mostly vacant building. When the assembled group was asked by Patrick Irwin as to what the school should be called, Maria Chavez – a lifelong resident of the community stated to the assembled audience “César Chávez”. Another attendee of the meeting stood up to ask "Who is he" - to which Ms. Chavez replied "He's our Martin Luther King" – to which everyone in the room began applauding. No other names were offered to name the school and on a one voice recommendation – the name and destiny of the school was selected. The César Chávez Academy honors the legacy of César Chávez who dedicated his entire life to the cause of social justice and the rights of all people to dignity and respect. During his lifetime César Chávez, as a human rights and labor leader, spent many hours and days in the Detroit community in his pursuit of support and assistance for his labor and peace struggles. César Chávez was as a close friend to Monsignor Clement Kern (deceased) former pastor of Most Holy Trinity Church in Detroit - and Cesar spent many nights at the rectory of Holy Trinity when he stayed in Detroit.


The Middle School

The first year students enrolled at César Chávez was in the fall of 1996 in grades K through 3, with slightly over 100 students. The first CCA grade school principal was Dr. Carlos Lopez, who stayed for one year. The first year was particularly difficult as the new board, teachers, students and parents all grappled with the enormous responsibility involved with providing a quality education for the community. Over time additional grades were added to the César Chávez Academy one class at a time until the school eventually outgrew the St. Gabriel location and needed to add grades 6 through 8. In 1998 the César Chávez School Board rented a building off Trumbull and Labrosse to house the establishment of a middle school in a building that once was the headquarters of the Joe Muer restaurant chain. This middle school building location – some five miles away from the grade school necessitated the establishment of bus transportation system between the two campuses. While all agreed that the location was too far away in distance from the grade school, there were no other suitable building locations in the area, and this was the best the Board could do at that time. The first middle school principal was Terry Blevens, who was then followed up by founding school board member Beatrice Esquivel who left the César Chávez Academy Board of Directors to become the middle school principal.

The High School

As students progressed through the Academy the decision was made to provide 8th graders with a César Chávez high school to attend. A third building was needed and the Board of Directors purchased temporary modular buildings which were placed on the middle school campus to house high school students until a more permanent solution could be found. Middle school principal Beatrice Esquivel moved to become the founding high school principal and longtime middle school assistant principal Rick Guerra moved to become the middle school principal.

The modulars stayed in place for two years at the middle school location while the Board worked out a purchase agreement in the year 2000 for property at 1761 Waterman. This location housed a three-story abandoned office building and truck repair warehouse and was also used as a dumping ground for abandoned cars, building materials, etc. The property was purchased for the sum of approximately $350,000. The owner of the property, however, attempted to commit fraud by selling the property to two parties at once, and it was only after the involvement of the Board's land acquisition and project developer, Norman Lopatin of the firm Lopatin and Company, that the situation become resolved. Norman was also able to secure a significant financial concession on the purchase price for the César Chávez Board because of the attempted fraud.

​To finance the construction of the school the Board - through the Municipal Capital Markets Group - issued a $10 million Wall Street bond. This bond financed a renovation of the existing office building, a building extension to house additional classrooms and a cafeteria, along with the renovation of the former truck warehouse into a gymnasium and classroom building. The Board decided to save rather than tear down the former warehouse, as a testimony to the history of the community and to build a unique gymnasium/classroom experience. The Board also commissioned builder and artist Carlos Huerta to design historical era art work to ring the outer top walls of the building which depict various cultural symbols important to the Mayan, Aztec and Toltec worlds. The art works also include 3shamrocks, representing various ethnicities within Southwest Detroit and the historical friendship between the Mexican and Irish communities ("los patricios" (from St. Patrick) who fought on behalf of Mexico, Mexican people, and civil rights).


The New Middle School

Once the high school was completed in 2003 the former high school modulars were moved over to the new high school campus and the Board then embarked upon its 5th building decision - to move the middle school from its far too distant location on Trumbull to a location closer to the High School. After unsuccessful attempts to purchase the vacant YMCA building on Clark and Vernor (offer made for $400,000 - owners sought $1.5 million) and an unsuccessful attempt to purchase property adjacent and across the side street from the high school, a decision was reached to build the middle school directly behind the high school on property already owned by the Board. In 2005 a bond issuance of $6.1 million was issued through Municipal Capital Markets Group once again to build the middle school. An innovative approach was chosen for the construction of the building: pre-fabricated structures were built in Indiana and shipped to Detroit, then lifted into place by crane and finished by on site/traditional construction methods (i.e. glass lobby, stairwells, bricking of the building, etc.). The entire construction project took only 6 months (starting in March) and was completed in time for school to start in August 2005.

​The bonds for both the High School and Middle School are payable over a 30-year period with dedicated time intervals for early repayment or refinancing at the decision of the César Chávez Board. The issuance of these bonds – all done at the behest of the César Chávez Board’s community volunteers – represent the largest investments ever taken in Southwest Detroit by a volunteer, community-based board. The oversight construction of the schools was also undertaken by Lopatin.



César Chávez Academy has an enrollment of approximately 1,650 students in grades K through 12 with 600 of those in the high school, 600 in the middle school and approximately 450 in the grade school. The mission of the school is to be the top urban based school district in the country as evidenced through motivated and prepared instruction, a disciplined learning environment and a commitment to providing students with all of the many tools, resources and educational experiences which they will need to be successful in life. Each school building has its own school leader[1] and assistant leader, and all three schools are overseen by a school superintendent. As a publicly funded school within the State of Michigan, César Chávez students are required to follow all State of Michigan public school requirements, including participation in MEAP testing, and to remain in compliance with the Federal "No Child Left Behind Act".


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District Awards and Commendations

  • North Central District Accreditation (2010). CCA is the first multi campus district to receive NCA Accreditation in Michigan

  • Skillman Award Recipient (2007-2010) K-12

  • Wayne RESA model for Response to Intervention (RtI)

  • United Way of Southeastern Michigan, Excellent Schools Detroit, and New Detroit The Coalition identified CCA high school as a replicable model

  • U.S. Census Honor Award (2010)

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