Charter Champ

Tennis star Agassi faces down charter school facilities in Nashville

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Tennis great Andre Agassi cuts the ribbon as business partner Bobby Turner watches during the official opening last October of Rocketship's newest Nashville charter school.

In a city where arguments over charter school growth are volleyed back and forth like a tennis ball in a Grand Slam tournament, tennis champion Andre Agassi is bringing his star power to the debate — and hopes to turn a profit in the process.

Agassi and his business investment partner Bobby Turner on Tuesday celebrated the opening of Rocketship United Academy, the second Nashville school opened by California-based charter network Rocketship Education. Like with Rocketship’s first Nashville school, which opened last fall, this $7 million-plus, 37,000-square-foot building was developed through a fund created by Agassi and Turner.

Nationally, affordable facilities are considered one of the greatest challenges to charter expansion because charter operators often must raise their own money for school buildings. The issue has fueled scraps both in Memphis and Nashville, where school board members and district officials complain about the cost of charters to traditional public schools, even without providing facilities or funding for facilities. Charter advocates counter that charter schools are public schools too — authorized by local districts and sometimes the state — and should be provided with buildings and facilities like any other public school.

The Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, a for-profit business, provides the capital to purchase property for charter schools, constructs or retrofits the building, and then rents to a charter operator until the operator can own it.

Agassi says investing in high-quality, learning-friendly elementary schools is the first step in lifting student achievement nationwide. Turner says the goal is to generate a profit for investors while serving a higher public purpose. Investors will get an 8 to 10 percent market rate return from the rental and sale of campuses — and they don’t see anything wrong with that.

“We didn’t give away money to build this building,” Turner told fourth-graders during a tour of Nashville’s newest Rocketship school. “We call that philanthropy. When we give money away, oftentimes organizations aren’t held accountable.”

The fourth-graders, dressed in their purple Rocketship uniforms, nodded politely before asking which man in front of them — Agassi or Turner — is the famous tennis player.

Agassi, who retired from tennis in 2006 after being a dominant force in the sport for more than a decade, first teamed with Turner in 2011 to create a fund that has helped develop 50 charter schools serving 22,800 students.

Turner said he decided to focus on hedge funds rather than philanthropy after years of giving away his money to build almost 40 schools in Los Angeles. Philanthropy, he said, wasn’t able to create change quickly enough, with three times as many kids on school waitlists as there were seats.

“If we’re going to rely on philanthropy, we’ll never get to address this huge daunting challenge,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with making money while making significant and scalable change.”

Rocketship Education has worked with the Agassi-Turner venture on its two Tennessee schools and one in Wisconsin. A nonprofit charter organization, Rocketship also operates 10 schools in California and plans to expand soon to Washington, D.C. The network is known for its technology-heavy curriculum in serving low-income students.

Agassi and Turner take questions from a fourth grade class.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Agassi and Turner take questions from a fourth-grade class.

Jessica Johnson, director of the Charter School Facilities Initiative, said private-public relationships that partner with a commercial real estate developer, solicit private dollars, or use a hedge fund like Agassi’s are becoming more common in the charter world in states and districts that don’t automatically match charters with buildings.

“Because charter schools don’t have access to those same resources, they’re forced to go on the open market,” said Johnson, who is also director of policy and legal initiatives at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

She added that charters should do their homework before entering into such agreements. “You’re using public dollars, so it’s important to do due diligence in ensuring you’re doing what’s best for your students and communities,” Johnson said.

Rocketship United Academy serves 375 students in kindergarten through fourth grade in a former Nashville office building that has been retrofitted to serve as a center for learning. The 2.3-acre campus originally was developed by a local tractor supply business and now includes a gymnasium, learning lab and 19 classrooms.

Rocketship Tennessee director Shaka Mitchell said the operator having its own building made more sense than leasing a building, as many Nashville charters do.

“We can do things in this space that we’d never be able to find in a leased space,” he said — for instance, cutting skylights into the ceiling and rewiring the building for an instructional model that relies heavily on computers. Rocketship  spends between 12 to 16 percent of its annual budget for Tennessee on facilities, which is less than Tennessee charter schools’ average of 20 percent, according to the Tennessee Charter School Center.

Mitchell said if critics have a problem that a profit is being made on Rocketship’s customized space, they should instead start a conversation about using public funding for charter facilities. “But right now, that doesn’t even seem to be on the table,” he said.

Turner said he’s interested in building more Rocketship schools in Nashville, but is frustrated by the local school board’s hesitancy to approve a third Rocketship school. The State Board of Education will announce later this month whether it will overturn the local board’s decision and allow Rocketship to expand in the city next year.

Agassi leaves most of the talk about market-rate returns to Turner. When asked by a fourth-grader how they “got money,” Turner told them to find something they love to do. His famous partner agreed.

“You can be wealthy and unhappy,” Agassi said.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.