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Agassi Prep – A Tennis Star’s School For Deprived Children

LAS VEGAS (dpa) – Ten-year-old Armand Burke was amazed to find that he owed a place at his new school to Andre Agassi. “Tennis stars don’t normally give money to schools, they play tennis, train, give interviews and go on television,” said the youngster.

He is one of 150 pupils who have been attending the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, or Agassi Prep as it is fondly known.

The modern building with its classrooms painted in vibrant colours and workrooms brimming with the latest computer hardware is far from the famous Strip – the heart of this gamblers’ city. The college is sited in an impoverished part of west Las Vegas where the tennis professional has put 1.5 million dollars into realizing a dream. The remaining 2.6 million dollars came from U.S. authorities and the state of Nevada.

As a tennis star and more recently the husband of German tennis ace Steffi Graf, 31-year-old Agassi is used to making headlines. One image of him rarely seen in the media though is that of the patron and benefactor of children.

Back in 1993 he set up a trust fund in his home city of Las Vegas to provide financial assistance to “socio-economically challenged”, namely deprived children. Last September alone Agassi collected nine million dollars at a traditional charity gala attended by stars such as Elton John, and Stevie Wonder. Agassi has been involved in the school project since 1998.

“As a tennis professional he’s on the road a lot, but Andre has contributed his own ideas and proposals for this project at every step,” said Julie Rossetti of the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation. Agassi wants to boost the level of educational training at state-run schools and for the mainly black area of Vegas with its hopelessly overcrowded schools the college is a real boon.

The children attending it are given an education on a par with the best private schools without their parents having to pay any tuition fees. As a charitable “Charter School” the establishment is subject to state education laws although both teachers and pupils have more say about what goes on here, the classes are smaller and the success rate of pupils higher.

Perhaps it’s fitting that in Vegas pot luck decides which children will attend the Agassi Prep. Around 400 kids for the 150 places are randomly selected using a computer lottery system. Some 90 per cent of the 8- to 11-year-olds come from an underprivileged background and are dark-skinned.

Eleven teachers give lessons and the school is due to be expanded to enable pupils to stay longer than from the 3rd to 5th grades as at present. The rules of this academy are up there on the board in large letters for everyone to read. “Prepare yourself, work hard, respect others and look after the furniture.”

“We make very heavy demands of them,” said School Principal Wayne Tanaka. “Instead of six hours a day the children have eight hours of lessons. Our aim to make little ‘stars’ out of these kids following in the footsteps of Andre, our tennis star.” The school mascot is a star with the letter A for Agassi in the middle.

There’s no tennis court to be found on this college site although the Agassi charity runs a sports ground nearby where children can take part in recreational activities free of charge. Sport is not the main subject on the Agassi Prep curriculum but rather technology, computers and mathematics.

Juli Jones, aged nine, still dreams though of “becoming a famous tennis star” while Aaron Harris hopes that one day Agassi might decide to work at the school as a sports teacher. The nine-year-old is keen to show the autograph he got from his sports idol when Agassi paid a brief, unscheduled visit. “Steffi was with him. She was very quiet but very nice,” he recalls.

Because of the U.S. Open in New York Agassi missed the official school opening ceremony on August 30 and he told the New York Times that he looks forward to visiting the school as a “normal” person not as a tennis star. The children have quickly overcome any shyness in the presence of their tennis patron.

A youngster asked Agassi frankly why he lost the U.S. Open, the school director recalls, upon which the tennis professional gave an impromptu lesson:” You can’t always win but I always do my best and that’s what I expect of you too.”

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