Tennis star Agassi was in Modesto Friday. How he’s helping kids here fulfill their dreams

Andre Agassi dropped out of school after the eighth grade to play competitive tennis and went on to become No. 1 in the world.

In his life after professional tennis, Agassi has championed the charter-school movement to provide education and opportunity to disadvantaged kids. The retired tennis star and a business partner left their stamp Friday on the former Sportsmen of Stanislaus Club in Modesto, which has been converted into an Aspire Public Schools campus for kindergarten through 12th-grade students.

“I did not have a choice in my life,” Agassi said. “Tennis was what I was going to do, and if I failed I would have nothing.”

He noted that most people who drop out of school are “left with a future not of their choosing.” After getting a show of hands from Aspire students who plan to attend college, Agassi urged them to follow through with their promise.

The Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund purchased the SOS fitness center near John Thurman Field for a reported $2.6 million in 2017 and financed the extensive renovations for the Aspire campus, which is expected to accommodate more than 1,000 students.

Racquetball courts were turned into classrooms. The swimming pool was filled and landscaped, and additional classrooms wired with the latest technology were built and finished with a blue-and-gold color scheme. The 67,000 square feet of school facilities includes arts and science rooms, a gym, play areas and tennis courts.

About 600 students with Aspire University Charter School and Aspire Vanguard College Preparatory Academy were moved to the campus in the fall. The modern facilities are expected to help boost enrollment to more than 1,000. Aspire UCS previously used portable classrooms on Coffee Road, while Aspire Vanguard leased space from the Empire Union School District.

The Turner-Agassi fund was founded to solve the facility challenges of charter schools, which often rent whatever space is available in offering an alternative to traditional public schools. The Turner-Agassi fund is not a charity. Aspire is leasing the facilities and will have purchase options when the campus is fully occupied.

Agassi and co-managing partner Bobby Turner toured the campus Friday, stopping in classrooms to interact with students.

In a kindergarten class, Agassi and Turner listened intently as students told them about their “meta-moments,” a psychological tool for dealing with challenging emotions.

Turner told the students he was born into privilege and created the business model so that kids from less fortunate backgrounds could have the education they deserve.

Agassi said first-class facilities create an environment where students are valued and the teachers “expect a lot from you ... When people believe in you, you believe in yourself and you realize you can accomplish anything you want.”

In a lighter moment, a student sang a song to the tennis star, and another performed the splits. Agassi showed a trick to the kids, counting the digits on one hand forward and backward. For some reason, the final count is 9 instead of 10. Go figure.

Agassi has a charter academy in his hometown of Las Vegas that has a reputation for sending 100 percent of graduates to college, he said.

For kindergarten teacher Kate Waldron, the visit to her class from the eight-time Grand-Slam title winner is quite a memory. “The kids were super-excited,” she said.

Supported by a group of institutional investors, the Turner-Agassi fund has been instrumental in development of more than 100 schools across the United States serving close to 60,000 students. The fund is involved with choosing sites, acquisition, design and construction of campus facilities.

Alexandra Ochoa, an 11th-grader at the Aspire school, offered a testimonial for charter school education. She said she came to the United States from Mexico when she was 10 years old and her experience with public school was awful. “I was bullied and my school teacher did not care about me,” Ochoa said.

Her mother discovered a charter school where she could excel in the classroom. Ochoa said Aspire’s new campus in Modesto is much nicer than the leased facilities in Empire.

“I plan to go to UC Davis and major in biology and become a surgeon,” Ochoa said.

Dignitaries and other guests attending the event Friday seemed pleased with the transformation of the former SOS Club. One speaker said the former fitness center and the school will have the same healthful benefits for the community, as a well-educated population tends to have lower rates of chronic disease related to lifestyle choices.

“They have taken a jewel in our city and made it a diamond,” Mayor Ted Brandvold said.