When tennis superstar Andre Agassi talks about the Las Vegas charter school that bears his name, his face lights up when he gets to the part about graduation.
Agassi never finished high school, but his passion for education is unmatched, much like his tennis career.
As he sat in a classroom at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy on Wednesday afternoon, he gushed over the 19 seniors graduating on June 12.
"This is like the dream day of the whole year; it's the next set of kids we're sending off into their futures," Agassi said in an interview with the Review-Journal. "This is the best part."
His wife and fellow tennis champion, Stefanie Graf, said the graduation ceremonies are incredibly emotional.
"You're seeing their faces and their emotions as they're taking these steps forward," Graf said. "Everybody has tears in their eyes as they're talking about the opportunities they have now, how they're hopeful for the future and being able to accomplish their dreams. It doesn't get any better than that."
But it has been a tough year for the academy, which has faced criticism over enrollment in low-income areas, looming budget cuts and a testing mishap that cost the middle school principal her job.
Agassi said he plans to step up his private fundraising efforts to offset possible budget shortfalls. The school spends about $13,000 per student each year, more than twice what local public schools spend. Tuition is free for the school's 623 students.
About 20 percent of the students share the same ZIP code as the school, 89106. The school is just east of the Lake Mead and Martin Luther King intersection, which places the charter school in a neighborhood where one in five residents lives below the poverty line, according to U.S. census figures.
North Las Vegas resident Shaniqa White gushes as she discusses graduating from the charter school and her dreams of becoming a registered nurse with a degree from University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The 18-year-old, who won a $10,000 Longines Elegance Scholarship for college, is the student body president, captain of the volleyball team and a National Honor Society member. She began attending the academy in 2001 when she was in the fifth grade and has watched the school transform.
"It's amazing to me, just being a part of Agassi's dream means so much to me," White said. "He started with something so small. I thank God everyday to be a part of his dream. It's helped me with my life and my family because I'm going to be the first college graduate."
Any student in kindergarten through 12th grade is eligible for admission. Because the demand for admission is greater than the maximum enrollment, the school has set up a lottery. Priority is given to students living within a two-mile radius of the school and who have other siblings already enrolled. All of the incoming kindergartners will be from the neighborhood, a school spokesman said.
"It being a lottery, there's not a whole lot of things we can do," Graf said. "I mean, it's not manipulated in anyway as to who is getting in here."
The most difficult part for Agassi, he said, is seeing the 800-plus kids waiting to get in.
"Truth is, the hardest part is the kids on the waiting list," he said. "You realize just how bad the need is and how many kids just don't get the chance to have a future of their choosing. It's a sad, harsh reality."
In March, state officials investigated former middle school principal Bevelyn Smothers for giving five students additional opportunities to complete Criterion Referenced Tests, state standardized testing that evaluates student progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. State law does not allow officials to gives students extra help or time with the tests.
"That was far from a scandal," Agassi said. "It was a mistake. The teacher thought they could finish the test in the back room. You have to deal with those mistakes, and you have to be accountable for it and be responsible that none of that happens again.
"It was disappointing for us, for those kids and certainly for the middle school teacher who literally made a mistake. We adapt, we overcome life, and we move forward."
For Agassi, success will come when his graduates return to Las Vegas as adults and help future generations achieve the same educational goals.
"That's what I'd love to see," he said. "Ultimately, it's all to help our community, and I'm going to do it the best way I possibly can. So far it's 623 kids, but it's not enough."
Contact Kristi Jourdan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279.