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On the green manicured grounds of the San Antonio Country Club, Andre Agassi wore black. Except for the white trim on his sneakers, Agassi’s pants, shirt and shoes were Johnny Cash black.
This is the preferred color of the Good Guy, a 9th grade dropout who became a Hall of Fame tennis player, then a philanthropist and investor pouring millions of dollars into building charter schools.
Agassi does not fund schools alone. He has an investment partner, Bobby Turner, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who describes himself as a “recovering philanthropist.” Since 2011, the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund has built 69 charter schools, five are in development, for 35,000 children in some of the nation’s most economically-challenged neighborhoods.
The KIPP Cevallos Campus is the latest. The 165,000-square foot facility, fully funded by Turner-Agassi, sits on 18 acres along San Pedro Creek. It opened on Aug. 8 with 1,600 students and 105 classrooms. A ribbon cutting ceremony took place Thursday at 9 a.m.
Warm and engaging, Agassi mingled with guests at a KIPP fundraiser Wednesday night at the San Antonio Country Club. He posed for pictures, signed autographs, and thanked supporters during a cocktail reception.
He recalled how a 1999 “60 Minutes” piece on KIPP and his own lack of education inspired him to start the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a public K-12 charter school in his hometown Las Vegas. The school opened in 2001. Fifteen years later, he’s opening another charter in San Antonio. “I’ve come full circle,” he told the Rivard Report. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
The Turner-Agassi fund is a private real estate company that financed and managed the construction of the new facility. It owns the new building and leases it back to KIPP.
No one may be more relieved than Mark Larson, CEO of KIPP San Antonio. KIPP Aspire Academy, which Larson started 14 years ago, has had five temporary homes, abandoned buildings and church basements among them. Now it resides in the newly constructed brick and mortar of Cevallos. “We are incredibly grateful,” Larson said.
If not for Agassi’s autobiography, Open, there would be no Turner-Agassi fund. While reading the book, Turner learned that Agassi had quit school to become a tennis pro as a teenager and that he later developed a passion for education, started his own charter school, and eventually became frustrated with the large number of students waiting to get in.
Turner phoned Agassi and arranged a meeting. Turner proposed they become investment partners and solve a common and recurring challenge for charter schools – the building of infrastructure.
Agassi pondered the proposal for months. He discussed it with his wife, Hall of Fame tennis player Steffi Graf. “Three months ended with my wife asking me this one simple question,” Agassi said, “which was: ‘What’s the alternative if you don’t do this?’”
A partnership was formed. Graf has her own foundation, Children For Tomorrow, which helps children and families who are victims of war, but she has no role in her husband’s venture.
Before partnering with Agassi, Turner made his wealth managing a hedge fund. Later, as a philanthropist, Turner says he built 38 schools in Los Angeles for 15,000 students. Another 45,000 students idled on a waiting list, and Turner, like Agassi, grew frustrated.
“I struggled with the moral discomfort of making money off of other people’s misfortunes,” he said. “But as a philanthropist, I struggled, too, at throwing money at other people’s misfortunes. And I realized that if you want to treat a problem in society, then the government and philanthropy were just fine. But the reality is neither the government nor philanthropists have been innovative enough to create scalable, sustainable solutions that stick. And I realized that if you wanted a cure, a real cure, you had to harness market forces. And that means (making) money by tackling these issues.”
His partnership with Agassi represents, in Turner’s words, “the first market driven solution” to the impediment of charter school growth: facilities.
Some critics cite the failure of some charters to meet state requirements for academic growth. A Center for Media and Democracy report concluded that nearly 2,500 charter schools closed between 2001 and 2013. Turner and Agassi say every charter school they have funded has remained open.
At the cocktail reception, Agassi shared the painful inspiration behind his role in the partnership. He did not enjoy competitive tennis in his youth but pursued the sport at the insistence of his father. He quit school and rose to No. 1 in the world rankings. He won 60 tournaments, eight major titles, an Olympic gold medal ,and more than $31 million in career earnings.
“While being at the top in the world is something, I assure you, it is not always as it appears,” Agassi said. “I was very unhappy, unsatisfied and, quite frankly, miserable. I hated what I did, despite being successful at it.” He noted, “The lack of education in my life led to a lot of disconnect.”
After retiring from tennis, Agassi built his own charter school.
“I took out a $40 million mortgage,” he said. “And then set out to raise some money because Ambien is no match for a $40 million mortgage. I set about the herculean task of building a K through 12 public charter school in one of the most economically-challenged areas of Las Vegas.”
The Andre Agassi Foundation for Education opened that first school. Eight years later, the school held its first commencement. The salutatorian, Simone Ruffin, stirred the crowd with these words: “Some along the way have short-sightedly labeled us at-risk. Well, we are at risk – at risk of excellence, at risk of success. We are at risk of having a class where 100% of the students graduate and go to college.”
Agassi beamed and drew satisfaction from initial student success. But the needs and challenges grew and he recognized the limitations of a lone charter school with a long waiting list. Two years after that commencement, he formed a partnership with Turner. “This is not about philanthropy,” Agassi said. “It’s not about making money. This is about making scalable, sustainable change.”
Turner says he and Agassi have raised additional funds, nearly $325 million, which will enable them to build more charter schools.
The Cevallos campus is the second school Turner-Agassi have built for KIPP San Antonio. The first was the Commerce Street campus, which was converted from an old K-Mart. More growth is planned. Larson, the CEO, says the goal is for enrollment to rise from 3,000 at six local KIPP schools to possibly 9,000 at 15.
“Our plan,” he said, “is to do this is over the next nine years.”
The Cevallos campus remains one piece of the Turner-Agassi master plan. By the time the next round of charters is completed, Turner and Agassi estimate, they will have the equivalent of one of the largest school districts in the country.
Top image: Tennis champion Andre Agassi spins a tennis racket once used by him as attendees of a cocktail party surround him. Photo by Scott Ball.