Former tennis pro Andre Agassi is best known for being a brash, hard hitting champion on the tennis court. In addition to his wins at places like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, many remember Agassi most for a slogan he once uttered in a commercial for Cannon – “image is everything.” The 45-year old former tennis player now cringes at his youthful emphasis on style over substance. In retirement, Agassi has taken aim at a much different target: childhood education.
Agassi has already made his mark with a charter school in his hometown of Las Vegas. The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy provides tuition-free education for at-risk children. Agassi started the school by raising over $40 million. The school has been so successful that its inaugural class in 2009 all went to college. The impressive mission of the school was to single out students who would traditionally fail and drop out of school and give them the best possible opportunity to learn.
Agassi has since become a stellar fundraiser, organizing over $1 billion in capital for the construction of charter schools across the United States. The Canyon-Agassi Fund is a for-profit entity that is planning to create up to 100 charter school campuses within the next five years, serving nearly 50,000 students of all ages.
Agassi’s passion for education comes from a unique place: his formal education ended at age 14. Agassi was a rising tennis prospect who who hated school. In his autobiography, Open, he wrote about being bullied by teachers and distracted by an overactive mind. “I like books but feel over-matched by them. I have a steel-trap memory, but trouble concentrating. I need things explained twice, three times,” he wrote about his experience in middle school.
Despite the success of the Agassi College Preparatory Academy, Agassi regretted not investing in early childhood programs like pre-K. Agassi now spends a substantial amount of his time hearing pitches from entrepreneurs in the education innovation space. As a result, last month Agassi announced a huge investment in Square Panda, a tech startup that helps pre-school children get an early start. Square Panda develops games that help kids learn. Agassi was sold on the concept when he watched kids at one of his charter schools learn to read using a phonics application on tablets.
The first product designed by Square Panda is the Square Panda Phonics Play-Set, which is already in testing at several Head Start programs around the United States. The play-set uses letter toys and other apps with a multi-sensory capabilities, all designed to help kids develop the skills needed to learn to read. Square Panda’s design is informed by the most updated research on early childhood reading. The technology is adaptive, which means it adapts as the child learns, recognizing when the child has mastered a skill and is ready to acquire new ones. The end result gives children the language and reading skills that will imbue them with self-confidence, which is one of Agassi’s primary aims.
“I know one of the most important skills for a child to possess as they enter kindergarten is a basic understanding of phonics,” said Agassi. “If you can teach a child basic reading, then the child will begin their educational experience with self-confidence.”
The play-set is available for pre-orders, which will ship in April of 2016. The app works on iOS and iPads.