Las Vegas Sun

July 22, 2014

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Agassi seeks funding for kindergarten, first grade

CARSON CITY -- Andre Agassi's charter school asked the Legislature for $900,000 Monday so it can offer kindergarten and first grade classes, but some charter schools said they hope the school and its influential founder won't receive special treatment.

The appropriation would put Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy "on the same level as a regular public school," said Craig Butz, executive director of the Odyssey Charter School in Clark County. The state doesn't typically fund the start-up costs of charter school buildings.

Butz said he was "startled" by the request.

"I don't begrudge Agassi's charter school if they're able to receive extra funding for facilities, but I would like to see other charter schools have access to the same resources," Butz said. "Facilities funding is probably the biggest hurdle to operating a charter school in Nevada."

The state's initial payment of per-pupil funding isn't available for buying or renting facilities for charter schools. That means people interested in starting a charter school must have cash on hand to get school buildings going.

Brian Thomas, the Agassi school's executive director, said the school deserves the money because it has posted results. It also obtained "many thousands of dollars" from McGraw-Hill companies to start a full-day kindergarten program and first grade starting in the fall of 2005.

The school just needs help putting up a building for the program, he said.

"This isn't asking for something for nothing," said Perry Rogers, chairman of the Agassi school's board of directors. "This is saying, we'll make a substantial financial commitment regardless of whether Nevada ever funds full-day kindergarten."

According to its request for the money, the existing buildings on the Agassi campus were funded by private donations of more than $22 million, federal funding of $1.45 million and a one-time appropriation from Nevada of $600,000.

Schools with less access to private donations typically come up with other options. For Explore Knowledge Academy, a charter school that opened in 2003 with about 300 students, help came from a local Lutheran church's offer of a building that already met the state's strict code for educational facilities.

The offer saved the charter school from having to make costly renovations to the facilities on Sand Hill Road at Tropicana Avenue. The school's founders, Kathleen Erickson and her husband, UNLV professor Ranel Erickson, used their own savings and money from a federal grant to cover the rent and other start-up costs.

Odyssey started in 1999 using portable trailers and this summer moved to its first permanent campus, more than 15,000 square feet of offices and classrooms on Jones Boulevard one block north of Sahara Avenue.

The expansion was paid through private donations and monies saved during the three years Odyssey operated out of trailers, Butz said. With 1,400 students in grades K-12, Odyssey is the state's largest charter school.

Leaders of the Agassi school traveled to Carson City Monday to make their pitch for money and tout their school in front of the Assembly Education Committee, where committee chairwoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, said the school could be used as a model for other charter schools.

Agassi and other school officials also supported Assembly Bill 162, which is designed to give charter schools more flexibility.

The bill would allow people who have worked in a field for at least five years to be teachers in that area even if they don't have certification. It also would loosen regulations for schools once their charters have been renewed once.

The bill would allow community colleges and universities to sponsor charter schools, instead of only school boards and the state Board of Education.

Finally, it would allow schools such as Agassi's -- which has 327 children on a waiting list -- to hold lotteries for entrance that would factor in whether or not a student lives close to the school and if his or her siblings attended the school.

Agassi explained that he started the school to help low-income students. But while about 60 percent of the school's 289 students live within 2 miles of the school, applicants now come from 38 zip codes throughout Las Vegas, school officials said.

"It (the school) is not designed as a back door for families that could afford a private school education," Rogers said.

Agassi said he hopes a model for the school will someday be used elsewhere, but he has no immediate plans to open another school, even though he could already fill it.

"Ideally this would be a model or a blueprint -- sort of a footprint -- for many schools like this everywhere," he said. "To be a part of this one has been a dream come true for us, a vision realized being realized every day."

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