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Childhood motivates Andre Agassi to change education landscape

SHARE Childhood motivates Andre Agassi to change education landscape

SALT LAKE CITY — Andre Agassi's storied tennis career spanned three decades, earned him legions of fans and is probably best understood in two acts.

But it may be his post-tennis third act — one that finds him a widely recognized advocate and self-described facilitator of education reform efforts — that ultimately touches the most lives.

In Act One, the audience was treated to a meteoric rise that began in the late '80s of a kid who turned pro at 16 and took the tennis world — and deep-pocketed sponsors — by storm well before winning his first tournament.

His flashy on-court style earned him his very own marketing tagline from camera maker Canon, "Image Is Everything," but he would go on to expose the substance beneath the show.

Agassi became the world's No. 1 men's tennis player in 1995, winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and Australian Open along the way before taking Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996.

But his descent into the game's dungeon was even more profound than his rise, with a series of setbacks and poor performances that led to a No. 141 ranking at the end of 1997.

Then, the curtains rose on Act Two, with Agassi ready to adjust to a life without the shackles of an oppressive and controlling tennis dad, opting to follow the direction of a coach and staff that prioritized fitness and focus as the path to reclaiming success.

And it was a formula that worked, with Agassi taking home five more Grand Slam titles and amassing a career record of 910-316 before retiring in 2006.

But even before retiring the racket that earned him more than $30 million in prize money and tens of millions more in endorsement deals, Agassi had begun the groundwork for what would become his post-tennis passion — creating education opportunities for kids facing challenges far more serious than, say, a stone-faced Pete Sampras in his prime.

In an exclusive interview with the Deseret News ahead of a scheduled appearance this week at a tech education and talent summit in Salt Lake City, Agassi talked about why he chose to segue his time, energy and brand power from the high-flying world of professional tennis to the uphill grind of making a difference in the world of education issues.

"It's been an interesting journey, to say the least," Agassi said. "It definitely may be the case that my own lack of education was what led to where I find myself today."

Agassi noted that as an eighth-grade dropout and someone whose life was overtaken by a father whose maniacal obsession to convert his progeny into a tennis star, left him a child without real choices.

But back in 2001, Agassi began his mission to create options for other kids, first by opening a charter school for third-fifth graders in his hometown of Las Vegas. And it wasn't an ivy-covered citadel for the children of Sin City's elites, but rather located in — and intended to serve — a neighborhood of kids struggling with really relevant issues like where their next meal was coming from.

"We face some very, very daunting societal issues as they relate to education, and the only way they can be solved is holistically," Agassi said. "Children don't fail; we fail them."

Accountability and competition

The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy has since grown into a K-12 school with an enrollment of 1,200. Students who attend for free and are chosen through a public lottery system, with preference given to those who live within a 2-mile radius of the school's location in West Las Vegas, an economically impoverished neighborhood.

Parents are required to sign a "code of excellence" contract, promising to fulfill their role in their student's academic journey, including a committment to community service hours.

Agassi said he has learned a lot about what works and what doesn't in education since the academy began. One of the most important lessons, he said, goes to accountability.

"Everyone needs to acknowledge and own their role in accountability — teachers, students and parents," Agassi said.

"And when you expect a lot of a child, they feel cared for and actually believe they’re capable of it themselves," he said.

While school funding is always going to be an element of the formula to achieve education goals, Agassi said it was a mistake to view it as a "be-all, end-all" and that the critical accountability factor for frontline teachers and students needed to also extend to systems themselves.

"Funding is a part of the issue, but resources without accountability is not going to be affective," he said. "Burdening taxpayers with a broken system may not be the solution."

Competition can and does have positive impacts on outcomes in the education realm, Agassi said. And bringing private operators together with existing public funding under a charter school model, as he did at his academy in Las Vegas, can lead to extraordinary results: His school has consistently earned top marks in independent performance evaluations.

But, he added, not all charter schools find success, and it was really just the top performers — out of the 7,000 or so charter schools across the country — that have figured it out.

"Really, about 85 percent of the charter schools out there fail to outperform public schools in similar demographics," Agassi said. "But the 15 percent that do outperform public schools are far ahead of them."

Successful formula

Now in partnership with real estate investor Bobby Turner, Agassi is taking his role as facilitator to new levels.

The Turner-Agassi Charter Schools Facilities Foundation launched in 2011 with a plan to raise $1 billion and build 130 new charter schools across the country.

Agassi said one of the foremost lessons from his experience with his namesake academy in Las Vegas was the huge challenge that financing the physical facility poses for anyone starting a school from scratch.

"My model is about how to scale the sustainability," he said. "If you can help with a process that provides a facility to an operator who knows how to do it, now you have a recipe that can win in the private sector and the burden is not on anyone's back."

Agassi and Turner are well on their way to achieving their shared goal, with their foundation already having helped build about 70 schools that have served 30,000 students.

The formula is very straightforward: The foundation looks for locations that hit the right marks in terms of real estate pricing and sufficient state per-pupil funding, and, of course, communities that are in need of better education pathways. Then, Agassi and Turner help get the building constructed and create a payback schedule that allows the operator to retire the debt on a tiered system that tracks with their growth.

Agassi said they're finding great success with a system that makes fiscal sense and has outcomes that are positively impacting the lives of a growing number of children who are getting a better education as a result.

Agassi added that his role as a parent — he and his equally famous wife, Steffi Graf, (23 Grand Slam titles, a career record of 1,073-187, and records too numerous to mention) have two children, Jaden, 15 and Jaz, 13 — has only deepened his committment to education improvements.

"My experience as a parent has served to further and indelibly imprint the importance of what we're doing," he said. "When you see children who have a future entirely of their choosing compared to children who have no future of their choosing, it's motivated me even more."

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Andre Agassi will be giving a keynote speach at noon Wednesday at the ASU + GSV Summit on education and talent at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. For more on the summit, visit www.asugsvsummit.com.