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How did Andre Agassi go from a tennis star to a public charter school advocate who’s helped open dozens of schools?

It’s a complicated story that Agassi says starts with his own education, or lack thereof. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade to pursue tennis full-time. He won his first Grand Slam tournament at age 22 and reached number one in the world rankings at age 24.

But he was only at the top for about seven months. He sank to 141st in the world at age 27. Speaking Tuesday at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of Rocketship Rise Academy, Agassi said, “I was really disconnected with what I did. I thought winning would satisfy some of that disconnect… And then I thought getting number one would satisfy that disconnect, and that led to an even greater secret: that I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing.” He mulled quitting the game.

But at his lowest point, Agassi decided he had to find his “reason.” After seeing a “60 Minutes” piece on great charter school operators, he set out to build a K-12 public charter school in the most disadvantaged area of Las Vegas, his hometown.

Agassi eventually bounced back to win five more Grand Slam titles, becoming world number one again in 1999 and completing the Career Super Slam.

After pouring $35 million of his own money into the school, the Andre Agassi College Prep Academy opened in 2001.

When Agassi saw how successful the school was, and how long its waiting list had become, he wanted to do more. He eventually set up the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, which has raised more than $500 million for school construction and helps charter schools grow until they reach maturity.

That’s what led Agassi to Rocketship Rise Academy on Tuesday, the 69th school Agassi has had a hand in opening. Rocketship Education is a nonprofit network of 17 public elementary charter schools in the San Francisco area; Milwaukee; Nashville, Tenn.; and now Washington. As public charter schools, they have more flexibility and independence than traditional public schools, but can’t charge tuition and must be open to all students. When demand is too high, they have to use a lottery system to allocate spaces.

The new school is located in Ward 8 of Washington, D.C., on the east side of the Anacostia River, an area that doesn’t have a great reputation in the city.

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Jacque Patterson, Rocketship’s regional director for Washington, has lived in Ward 8 for 21 years and lives four blocks from the new school.

Though some opponents accuse charter schools of cream-skimming the best students to get their superior test scores and graduation rates, it would be hard to make that claim for the Rocketship school.

Patterson says more than 90 percent of the students qualify for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program. “What Rocketship did, though, we specifically went out into communities that had been underserved, that a lot of people had not been working with,” he told the Washington Examiner.

“We truly have a hell of a staff,” Jackie Hopkins, the grandmother of a Rocketship student told the Examiner. Although Rocketship’s first day of school was Aug. 22, she can already tell the difference the school is making in her granddaughter’s life. “This school here, is awesome.” She says it feels like a true neighborhood school.

It helps that the most of the school’s teachers are experienced and have worked or lived in Ward 8 before. “They understand the population that we work with,” Principal Josh Pacos told the Examiner. “They reflect the community that we serve.”

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If Rocketship’s other schools are any indication, their methods will work.

Research shows that, once Rocketship students leave the network and go to middle school, they are roughly one year ahead of their non-Rocketship peers in math after the first and second years of middle school. In reading, Rocketship alumni are three-quarters of a year ahead of their peers.

Sitting with a second-grade class Tuesday, Agassi, in black tennis shoes and suit, asked the students if they know what he does now. One student asked if he was running for president. “No,” Agassi laughed. “We’re educating you guys to do it, so we finally have someone to vote for.”

They seem to have their sights set high enough. Later, Agassi asked the students, “Who wants to go to college?” Every student raised their hand.

Below is a brief interview Agassi gave to the Examiner [edited for clarity].

Washington Examiner: Why did you decide to get involved in building charter schools across the country?

Andre Agassi: I’ll try to give you the short-wind version of it. I started back in 1997 a conception of building my own K-12 public charter school to really give the tools to children to change their future, to give them a future of their choosing. That led me through a whole 15-year journey which ended up making me realize I wasn’t an operator and I wasn’t an educator, I was just a facilitator. So I figured out an out-of-the-box way to facilitate facilities for the great [charter] operators across our country that doesn’t come on the backs of taxpayers or their students, and in some cases even a great release valve for the public education system.

Examiner: When you talk to students at Rocketship schools across the country, what do they say they like about their schools?

Agassi: The funny thing is, it’s not so much the children that really have the full appreciation, it’s the parents. Because these children actually feel like they should be cared about. Which is a great experience, you know, to see a second-grader have high expectations, makes them think higher of themselves. The learning-friendly environment is a key component, no question about it, but it’s really the culture that goes on, where these kids believe in themselves and what they can do.

Examiner: Is there a tennis court on the facility, if not, why?

Agassi: Takes up too much real-estate. Additionally, it’s a thrive-at-somebody’s-demise kind of sport. So not the culture they want to set [laughter].

Jason Russell is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.

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