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Agassi's All-Stars

There's no doubt that Andre Agassi will go down in the history books as one of the greatest tennis players of all time. But anyone familiar with the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas may argue that he deserves as much acclaim as an educator as he does as an athlete. "Agassi Prep" is a charter school that opened in 2001 in West Las Vegas, one of the most economically depressed, crime-ridden, and forgotten parts of the city. Named a National Model Charter School by the U.S. Department of Education, Agassi Prep emphasizes self-discipline, respect, and individualized attention to help students master core subjects and prepare for college. The school's commitment to excellence and resulting accolades are hardly surprising, considering its founder and his determination to give back to his community.

A native of Las Vegas, Andre Agassi was a tennis prodigy as a toddler. He enrolled at a tennis academy at age 13 and turned pro by the age of 16. His original trademark long hair and unconventional outfits made him an instant attention-grabber. His extraordinary skill, perseverance, and drive made him a sports legend. Twice ranked number one in the world, Agassi won a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, and became one of only five men in history to win a career Grand Slam. Now 34, he's at an age where most of his contemporaries have retired. But he is still on the road playing tennis some 30 weeks each year. He remains a world-class player, most recently thrilling fans at this year's U.S. Open. No longer the iconoclast, Agassi has settled down a bit. After a short-lived marriage to actress Brooke Shields, Agassi wed fellow tennis great Steffi Graf in 2001. The parents of two young children, the couple has a house in the San Francisco Bay Area, but as Agassi tellsLive and Learn, Las Vegas is definitely home base.

Las Vegas is also the city where Agassi founded the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation in 1994, dedicated to improving the lives of children. To date, the Foundation has raised more than $36 million for a variety of projects, including a Boys and Girls Club. "Early on, we concluded that the best way to change a child's life was through education," says Agassi. Thus, the idea to establish Agassi Prep was born.

As a charter school, Agassi Prep receives the same amount of funding (approximately $5,100 per pupil) allocated to all Nevada public schools. The Agassi Foundation makes up the difference (approximately $2,500 per pupil) between Nevada's funding and the national average.

Charter schools must provide their own brick and mortar facilities, and that's where the Agassi name kicked in as a fundraising powerhouse. The Foundation has raised $20 million to construct Agassi Prep, starting with an elementary school building for third, fourth, and fifth graders that opened in August 2001. A middle school opened in 2003, and a high school and gymnasium will open in 2006. Eventually, the school will also offer kindergarten.

The 300 students attending Agassi Prep in grades 3 though 8 were selected by lottery. The majority are African-American, from underserved West Las Vegas. Tuition is free, maximum class size is 25, and there is a long waiting list for admission. "Our kids are getting a private school education at a public school cost," observes Kenn Ruffin, one of many enthusiastic parent volunteers.

More important than free tuition is the school's rigorous focus on college preparation, says Ruffin. Students have homework every night, their class day is an hour longer than in public schools, and the school year also lasts an extra two weeks. When it's all added up, a student attending Agassi Prep from kindergarten through high school will have two years more schooling than in the public schools.

It's hard to imagine a more stimulating learning environment. Agassi Prep's sleek, modern buildings of beige stone, glass, and steel grace an eight-acre campus that was formerly a rundown city corner. Classrooms feature touch-screen "smart boards," modern, modular desk units, and "TiVo"-ready television monitors. Classrooms are light and airy, with high ceilings, large windows, and vibrant color schemes of orange, lime green, and royal blue. Add to this four computer labs, an art studio, theatrical facilities, and science labs, and you have a school that many educators across the country can only dream of.

Understandably proud of the physical plant, Agassi is quick to note that "it's not just about throwing money at the school. We really wanted to make a difference in students' lives outside the walls." Accomplishing that goal, he says, is a three-way effort. Students, teachers, and parents have defined roles and responsibilities set forth in a written Commitment to Excellence, which they must sign.

Students, known as the "Agassi Stars," wear neat crimson and navy blue uniforms with a star logo over the pocket. They arrive at 7:25 a.m. and gather for an assembly. They recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the school's motto, called the Code of Respect. Says Agassi: "We've created such a sense of pride in these kids. Along with that pride comes motivation." Fifth-grader Cody Woods, who says he wants to attend at least six years of college and become an engineer, says, "I'd like to meet Mr. Agassi the next time he visits the school. I want to thank him for giving me good teachers, good math books, and the opportunity for a better life."

Improved test scores are key to that "better life," and the school is already showing impressive results on that front. According to Principal Kimberly Allen, "We're the only school in the neighborhood not on a watch list. That's really something, considering that when we opened, many of the elementary school students were two years behind academically." Adds Dr. Craig Kadlub, the Clark County official in charge of overseeing charter school compliance: "They're doing a great job serving the community where the school is located."

Teacher salaries at Agassi Prep are higher than in public schools, to reflect the increased hours. But, there is no so-called salary step. "We run the school like a business. There's a bonus system, based on performance," explains Agassi, "Basically, we get whatever resources we need to make our classes successful," says fourth-grade teacher Tashina Kendall. She adds, "There is also a lot of pressure here, because everyone is watching us. We have reporters coming in all the time. We get educators from around the country, celebrities, famous athletes, and even politicians."

One of them was former President Bill Clinton. He taught a class and took questions from students. Recalls Agassi: "As the President was walking out the gates of the school, he stopped, turned around and said, 'You know what is not right? It's that these doors aren't being knocked down by others coming here to see what you're doing.'" Agassi couldn't agree more. "We believe it's a model school. It's a blueprint for how the educational system can work all over the country," he says.

Though an endowment from the Agassi Foundation will fund the school in perpetuity, that doesn't mean the school can rest on its laurels, says Agassi. "Even if you're number one in the world, if you're not thinking about getting better, you're getting worse," he says. "Look at the Lakers when they won the NBA championship. They immediately got rid of three players. They may have been at the top, but they were committed to getting better. That's how I look at it with teachers, and with everything about the school."

One wouldn't expect anything less from someone who likes to win.


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