Charter Champ

Tennis star Agassi faces down charter school facilities in Nashville

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Tennis great Andre Agassi cuts the ribbon as business partner Bobby Turner watches during the official opening last October of Rocketship's newest Nashville charter school.

In a city where arguments over charter school growth are volleyed back and forth like a tennis ball in a Grand Slam tournament, tennis champion Andre Agassi is bringing his star power to the debate — and hopes to turn a profit in the process.

Agassi and his business investment partner Bobby Turner on Tuesday celebrated the opening of Rocketship United Academy, the second Nashville school opened by California-based charter network Rocketship Education. Like with Rocketship’s first Nashville school, which opened last fall, this $7 million-plus, 37,000-square-foot building was developed through a fund created by Agassi and Turner.

Nationally, affordable facilities are considered one of the greatest challenges to charter expansion because charter operators often must raise their own money for school buildings. The issue has fueled scraps both in Memphis and Nashville, where school board members and district officials complain about the cost of charters to traditional public schools, even without providing facilities or funding for facilities. Charter advocates counter that charter schools are public schools too — authorized by local districts and sometimes the state — and should be provided with buildings and facilities like any other public school.

The Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, a for-profit business, provides the capital to purchase property for charter schools, constructs or retrofits the building, and then rents to a charter operator until the operator can own it.

Agassi says investing in high-quality, learning-friendly elementary schools is the first step in lifting student achievement nationwide. Turner says the goal is to generate a profit for investors while serving a higher public purpose. Investors will get an 8 to 10 percent market rate return from the rental and sale of campuses — and they don’t see anything wrong with that.

“We didn’t give away money to build this building,” Turner told fourth-graders during a tour of Nashville’s newest Rocketship school. “We call that philanthropy. When we give money away, oftentimes organizations aren’t held accountable.”

The fourth-graders, dressed in their purple Rocketship uniforms, nodded politely before asking which man in front of them — Agassi or Turner — is the famous tennis player.

Agassi, who retired from tennis in 2006 after being a dominant force in the sport for more than a decade, first teamed with Turner in 2011 to create a fund that has helped develop 50 charter schools serving 22,800 students.

Turner said he decided to focus on hedge funds rather than philanthropy after years of giving away his money to build almost 40 schools in Los Angeles. Philanthropy, he said, wasn’t able to create change quickly enough, with three times as many kids on school waitlists as there were seats.

“If we’re going to rely on philanthropy, we’ll never get to address this huge daunting challenge,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with making money while making significant and scalable change.”

Rocketship Education has worked with the Agassi-Turner venture on its two Tennessee schools and one in Wisconsin. A nonprofit charter organization, Rocketship also operates 10 schools in California and plans to expand soon to Washington, D.C. The network is known for its technology-heavy curriculum in serving low-income students.

Agassi and Turner take questions from a fourth grade class.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Agassi and Turner take questions from a fourth-grade class.

Jessica Johnson, director of the Charter School Facilities Initiative, said private-public relationships that partner with a commercial real estate developer, solicit private dollars, or use a hedge fund like Agassi’s are becoming more common in the charter world in states and districts that don’t automatically match charters with buildings.

“Because charter schools don’t have access to those same resources, they’re forced to go on the open market,” said Johnson, who is also director of policy and legal initiatives at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

She added that charters should do their homework before entering into such agreements. “You’re using public dollars, so it’s important to do due diligence in ensuring you’re doing what’s best for your students and communities,” Johnson said.

Rocketship United Academy serves 375 students in kindergarten through fourth grade in a former Nashville office building that has been retrofitted to serve as a center for learning. The 2.3-acre campus originally was developed by a local tractor supply business and now includes a gymnasium, learning lab and 19 classrooms.

Rocketship Tennessee director Shaka Mitchell said the operator having its own building made more sense than leasing a building, as many Nashville charters do.

“We can do things in this space that we’d never be able to find in a leased space,” he said — for instance, cutting skylights into the ceiling and rewiring the building for an instructional model that relies heavily on computers. Rocketship  spends between 12 to 16 percent of its annual budget for Tennessee on facilities, which is less than Tennessee charter schools’ average of 20 percent, according to the Tennessee Charter School Center.

Mitchell said if critics have a problem that a profit is being made on Rocketship’s customized space, they should instead start a conversation about using public funding for charter facilities. “But right now, that doesn’t even seem to be on the table,” he said.

Turner said he’s interested in building more Rocketship schools in Nashville, but is frustrated by the local school board’s hesitancy to approve a third Rocketship school. The State Board of Education will announce later this month whether it will overturn the local board’s decision and allow Rocketship to expand in the city next year.

Agassi leaves most of the talk about market-rate returns to Turner. When asked by a fourth-grader how they “got money,” Turner told them to find something they love to do. His famous partner agreed.

“You can be wealthy and unhappy,” Agassi said.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede