Saturday, June 13, 2009

We Reap What We Sow

Inaugural Commencement Ceremony

‘Tis the season: Next summer I will return to my hometown of Clairton, PA to attend my high school class reunion. Last night in preparation for that event I attended the commencement ceremony of the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas (photo right). Tennis star Andre Agassi (photo left) is a local product but unlike many Las Vegas celebrities he has given back to the community. Perhaps because his own education was interrupted by a stellar tennis career, he and wife Steffi Graf have focused on educating local children. Through his foundation he’s funded a Boys and Girls Club, scholarships, after school projects, Child Haven for abused and neglected children, summer camp, and many other worthy causes. But his crown jewel is the $40 million Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy built in what many consider the most economically depressed part of the community.

How to grow a school: The first Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy class was comprised of at-risk students in grades 3-5. Grades K-2 were added and the school grew. As each school year was completed the original fifth graders and other grades advanced one year. Last night the fifth graders who by now had become seniors took part in a commencement ceremony for the inaugural graduating class. But a top notch education does not come cheap – or easily.

The state of education in Nevada: The state of Nevada funds its public schools at one of the lowest of any of the 50 states, roughly $ 6500 per student per year, about half the national average. The Agassi Foundation’s goal is to make up the difference through fundraisers and donations. To that end Mr. Agassi holds an annual “Grand Slam” fundraiser. That is the background story. Agassi Prep is a Charter School under the auspices of the local school district. The charter requires students to attend school two extra hours per day and two additional weeks per year. Faculty and staff are meticulously interviewed and go above and beyond the school’s requirements. The result for the first graduating class is a 100% graduation rate with every student accepted into college and collectively earning hundreds of thousands of scholarship dollars. Grads have been accepted at and plan to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, University of Tennessee, Alcorn State University, Spelman College, Pepperdine University, Concordia University, Cornell College, Grambling University, Ithaca College, Lehigh University, Prairie View University, University of San Francisco, and all the Nevada universities as well as others.

Not your grandpa’s graduation: Students fortunate enough to attend Agassi Prep – and there is a waiting list of hundreds – receive extra consideration if they live within a two-mile radius of the school. They are selected randomly by lottery and those who win the lottery must have parents or guardians willing to support their students and the high standards of the school. Teachers, parents and students working together make up a team that yields quality graduates. Those who stay the course take part in extracurricular activities that include the usual such as sports (the Boys basketball team went to State this year) and the unusual, such as a recent senior class trip to France.

Not your grandma’s graduation either: The graduating class of Stars (that is the Agassi Prep mascot) took part in a ceremony whose speakers included Mr. Agassi, himself an accomplished public speaker, Chancellor Marsha Irvin, Student Body President Alexis Wallace, and Valedictorian Desmend Jetton. Musical numbers were performed by the Agassi Orchestra Ensemble and graduating senior Je’na Givens singing “Over the Rainbow,” as well as the musical group Mosaic singing “End of the Road.” But the highlight of the Commencement Ceremony came when Chancellor Irvin presented Mr. Agassi with a congratulatory letter that had arrived at the school by Special Delivery that morning from President Obama. Each graduating senior received a copy of the letter.

Words of wisdom: Some of the advice that Andre Agassi gave to the graduates included: “Tennis was not my life, it was my job. My life was my life.” Also, “Stay strong in your faith and have faith in your strength.” Senior Class President La’Mayah Hodges reminded the graduates that since they’re the first graduating class, by default they’re the best! Salutatorian Simone Ruffin remarked, “Some along the way have short-sightedly labeled us as at-risk. Well, we are at risk -- at risk of excellence, at risk of success,” she continued. “We are at risk of having a class where 100 percent of the students graduate and go to college,” Mr. Agassi echoed the students’ sentiments when he told the students they are pioneers and sometimes pioneers get lost, but they continue to strive, “Tell yourself again the story of how you were a pioneer,” Agassi told the students. “How you proved all the naysayers wrong; how you defied the odds and made your parents and teachers and that one old tennis player very, very proud.” Mr. Agassi also said that he hoped that after college many of the graduates will return to the community and make a difference for future generations.

Things I realized at the ceremony: That cocky young tennis phenom and rebel with the wild hair who took the stodgy tennis community by storm is now a bald husband and father who has made it his life mission to give back to the community that spawned him. He looked every bit as good in his academic regalia (see photo above) as he did in his tennis outfits. He is as focused on facilitating his goals today as he was when he won eight grand slam singles tournaments. I also realized that poor children, who we as a society call “at risk,” can compete and excel when given opportunities equal to those of their successful peers. Finally, I remembered what I had known for a long time; that putting together “at risk” students, committed teachers, a strong administration, and a community’s resources, is not only a formula for success but it is the gift that keeps on giving to future generations.

A little blogging music Maestro... The theme of nearly every Commencement Ceremony, “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Dr. Forgot

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