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"It's college or bust" at Tindley Renaissance School, or so the saying goes. A lineup of successful leaders from the realms of politics, sports, business, and education took part in a pep rally of sorts to that end on Thursday at the school, located at 4010 North Sherman Drive on the city's near-northeast side. Among them, Andre Agassi—decorated athlete, ninth-grade dropout, and—in 1996—removed from the RCA Championships tournament in Indianapolis after cursing at a chair umpire mid-match.
"I'm making up for being disqualified the last time I played in Indianapolis," Agassi said when addressing the audience of about 200.
Just a few days prior to his 44th birthday, the tennis legend alighted in Indy to take part in the grand opening of Tindley Renaissance Academy, a charter school funded by the (deep breath) Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund. Tindley actually opened in October 2013, with 29 classrooms and phase-two production at hand for additional space in the 52,000-square-foot building, which includes a cafeteria, a media-and-art room, a gymnasium, and an interior playground.
The facility was formerly a church sanctuary, and Agassi himself took to a pulpit of sorts—the podium at the event's formal conference with press, parents, educators, and more—to discuss his own struggles and history with education. "I was good at something, thank God, or I don't know where I would've ended up," Agassi said. "I got to be No. 1 in the world, which seems like a big deal until you realize that you might have some material things and a few trophies, but being disconnected from your own life is probably one of the worst costs that you can really have. At No. 1, I started to go into a deep spiral, not knowing what I wanted to do."
After rattling off a lengthy list of Agassi's accomplishments, including that he won all four Grand Slam events at least once in professional tennis, John Neighbours of the Tindley Accelerated Schools board of trustees turned to the sports star and said, "The kids, Andre—they don't have any idea who you are." Agassi quickly offered a rejoinder: "That's the way it should be," with a fist pump above his head. Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard similarly feted Agassi, saying, "When you won big tournaments, the sheer joy on your face was great to see." Agassi had a perfectly timed response for that as well: "It's called relief."
Agassi created a charity in 1994 as an active world-class athlete, and he opened the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas in 2001. "Think Tindley in the desert," Agassi said. Neighbours noted that those efforts have raised $175 million toward education for low-income people. In his remarks to the assembly, Agassi referred to "the Herculean task of building a charter school." His station in life found him seeking to help economically challenged people in Las Vegas, places "where angels fear to tread."
Charter-school operators find it difficult to build long-term facilities, as they don't have access to the same tax revenue that public schools enjoy and often don't have workers equipped with the same expertise found in the Turner-Agassi program, which encompasses financing, real estate, and more.
As for the Tindley school group, it is to include seven high-performing schools when the plan is complete, with 3,500 students enrolled. The Turner-Agassi fund itself seeks to have 70 such schools in place by the end of 2015, with the potential for a total of 80.
Neighbours introduced Agassi and other speakers at the event, including Mayor Ballard; Marcus Robinson, chancellor and CEO of Tindley Accelerated Schools; and Glenn Pierce, president and CEO of the Turner-Agassi schools fund and a principal at Turner Impact Capital, which aids that market-driven real-estate fund.
Neighbours saluted Ballard as the first Indy mayor to appoint an education-centric deputy mayor. He also roasted Agassi like this: "YouTube is a wonderful thing. Go to YouTube and pull up Andre Agassi, the hair ... all that. There were terms used for him: rebel, and more." Turning to Agassi, he said, "You shot a Canon commercial ..." Once again not skipping a beat, Agassi said, "I did, I did. I'm guilty."
Excerpts from a post-ceremony Q&A with Andre Agassi:
So obviously you have an insatiable appetite for education. Is it education until the day you’re done?
I think we have an insatiable need in education. I don’t think education is fixable by one effort, so I will continue, and I will think of new ways to have an impact. More importantly, at this stage, it’s not about new ways for me; it’s about proving this model, and proving it in a scalable way and a sustainable way—because this is going to allow us to come back again to the table with not $550 million but closer to a billion dollars. And over the next three years of that billion dollars, we hopefully are going to have Tindley expanding 10 more schools … and the pipeline has only grown because the need is there. Communities and families are disenfranchised with the options that they have for their children’s future in education. What they’re being offered right now is not helping; it’s not giving their kids a chance at a life of their choosing. So I’m going to keep doing this until we figure out a better way to go.
We have a pattern happening lately in which Indianapolis Public Schools has aligned with education-reform-minded entity The Mind Trust, with millions of dollars being given to IPS. What do you think about a trend like that, where public schools, previously hands-off or stiff-arming education-reform–type things, are coming together with that lately?
Well, I think it’s important. I do think that’s a great step in the right direction. The Mind Trust is responsible for about a quarter of a million philanthropic dollars to our operators here. At the end of the day, I think what you need to have is everybody having a seat at this table. Until we have a children’s union, everybody doing what they can to give a voice to the failing job that is being done currently. I mean, we are failing as a country, not just here in Indiana. My state [Nevada] is 50th in kids we put into college, and we’re 25th or 26th in the world in standardized testing. We used to be No. 1 in the world in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So we are not doing a good job. So sooner or later, we’re all going to have to step up and do our part and be the solution.
THEY SAID IT
Here, quotables from the event's speakers, including some mentioned above plus first-term Indy City-County Councillor Christine Scales, who spoke with IM after the event.
» Robinson, about three Tindley elementary schools to follow: Education is to be "for every kid, no matter the ZIP code, no matter the race, no matter the family situation."
» Councillor Scales, on Tindley's future: "I've seen and known many of the children who have graduated from here, and they've only gone on to do wonderful things and go to great schools. What I like about it is, it's not just educating them in a scholastic way, but they really build character, and they build internally. It's inherent now in them that they're gonna want the best. ... Excellence is what they will expect out of themselves and others."
» Pierce, about his business allegiance to Agassi: "You can't have a better partner. He has a Golden Slam: He won all four majors plus a gold medal at the Olympics. That's pretty unique—except in his household, because his wife also has a Golden Slam."
» Councillor Scales again, about the community surrounding Tindley: "I worked in this community for a long time, and before that, I worked in kind of urban-missions settings, volunteering with Tabernacle Presbyterian [Church] at 34th and Central. ... It was blighted, nothing going on, and it still has a lot of the worst socioeconomic problems, and crime, but what's happened is, this has given [people] hope again, and not just that, but trust. They had a lot of people coming to them, saying, 'We're going to make changes here,' and it would never happen. So it was hard for us to get that trust again in the broader community, but they have it now, and this school has been the catalyst for that. ... I like to call it 'from blight to beautiful.' To me, when I get tired of what I do, and I get discouraged, today, this lifted me back up. It's worth it. It's worth the efforts, and the stumbling blocks you come across at times."
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