Andre Agassi grew up in Las Vegas, spending the first 15 years of his life there before being shipped off to a tennis academy in Florida to begin one of the most storied careers in professional tennis. But his heart never left home.
At age 24, in the meaty middle of his playing career, Agassi formed a foundation with the aim of helping underprivileged kids in his home town. After briefly running an after-school program, he founded a Boys & Girls club, and the following year built a shelter and educational center for abused children.
“But then a light bulb went off,” Agassi explained. “We realized we were sticking band-aids on real issues.” Agassi decided that if he were going to really help kids, they needed education. So he built his own school and focused his foundation entirely on its success. He planted his flag in West Las Vegas, the city’s most depressed neighborhood, about nine miles from the glitzy Strip.
The Andre Agassi Preparatory Academy opened in August of 2001, with 150 students in grades 3 through 5. Additional grade levels were added until the school spanned K-12, and it graduated its first class of 34 high-school seniors in 2009. All 34 enrolled in colleges the following autumn. Today, more than 1,100 students attend. Thanks to Agassi’s close personal involvement, $40 million of private money was raised to build them a fine campus.
Tuition at the charter school is free. The students are chosen by lottery (though Agassi convinced regulators to allow him to give admissions preference to children who live within a two-mile radius of the school). The entire atmosphere at the school is based on Agassi’s “Code of Respect,” which is spelled out in detail. In addition, school days are two hours longer than at other Las Vegas public schools, and the school year is 10 days longer. There is no tenure for teachers.
Everyone involved with the school—students, parents, and faculty—begins by signing a pledge of “Commitment to Excellence.” It seems to be working: the school has been recognized at both the state and national levels for its successes. —Jonathan V. Last
Seeing that “factory-style” public schools were having poor results, teacher Dan Scoggin went looking for an antidote. His search convinced him that a powerful emphasis on character development, linked to a demanding classical liberal-arts curriculum, would help students feel their human value and potential. That would in turn translate into academic achievement.
Scoggin was the leader of a group of Phoenix-area residents who thought their city needed better schools. Their goals were bigger than just improved test scores. They wanted to produce students capable of appreciating “the true, the good, and the beautiful”—while also being 100 percent qualified to attend college and otherwise achieve and contribute.
Taking advantage of Arizona’s embrace of the charter-school concept, and a bevy of generous local donors, Scoggin’s team founded the first Great Hearts Academy in 2002 as a free public charter school located in the Phoenix suburbs. Their idea was that underprivileged children would flourish if they were surrounded by “greatness”—a diet of “great books” and great human examples, neither of which were emphasized in most current educational materials.
Great Hearts employs teachers who are experts in their fields, rather than graduates of teacher schools. They require their pupils to read primary sources rather than textbooks. They use Socratic-style discussion rather than lectures, and expect every child to participate and learn, not just the natural scholars. All of which is easier said than done, of course. Particularly since in Arizona, as in most states, charter schools are allotted less money than conventional public schools. (One indicator at the time showed $7,806 going to every student in charters, versus $9,429 for students at conventional schools.)
The difference was made up by local donors large and small, like the Quayle family, fourth-generation Arizonans who gave $1.5 million in 2012. Philanthropy also covered crucial costs for expanding the Great Hearts model after it had demonstrated its power (95 percent of students, even those from difficult inner-city neighborhoods, go straight to four-year colleges). By 2013 there were 16 Great Hearts Academies in the Phoenix area (where more than 7,000 students are already on waiting lists for the schools), and the network is planning expansion into other regions. —Karl Zinsmeister and Brian Brown
Taking Some of the Fear Out of Cancer
Both of Jon Huntsman’s parents died of cancer. In 1992, he was diagnosed with the disease himself—the first of his four separate personal battles with the killer. His stints in the hospital convinced him that better treatments, better research, and better institutional experiences for cancer patients were all sorely needed.
After inventing, at the company he founded, the Styrofoam container that cradled McDonald’s Big Mac, Huntsman had gone on to numerous other commercial successes, so he had the resources to act on his dream. He brokered a deal with a big pharmaceutical company to split the $250 million cost of building a state-of-the-art cancer treatment and research center in Salt Lake City, to fill a void in the Rocky Mountain region. Then the company backed out at the last minute. Huntsman and his family decided to foot the entire bill.
Today, Huntsman Cancer Institute serves 60,000 patients every year, performs 3,000 surgeries, and conducts groundbreaking research on genetic cancer patterns. Perhaps most important to Huntsman, the treatment facilities are renowned for their peaceful beauty, comfort, family-friendliness, and attention to patient services. The institution now ranks in the 99th percentile in patient satisfaction. —Brian Brown
Looking After Orphans
“Orphans and vulnerable children are not a cause,” megachurch pastor Rick Warren told one of his “civil forums” in 2010. “They are a Biblical and social mandate we can’t ignore.” And Warren is not alone among Christian leaders who have come to believe that adoption should be at the top of the evangelical agenda. Five full years before Warren spoke at his forum, Project 1.27 was already under way.
Over just a few years, a church-based effort in Colorado succeeded in finding homes for all of the hundreds of children in that state who had been waiting fruitlessly for adoption.
Late in 2004, Pastor Robert Gelinas noted that there were 875 children in the state of Colorado who were legally available for adoption, but had no one willing to take them home. Urging that Christians should “make sure there are no children waiting for homes,” Gelinas and others launched Project 1.27. It trains and supports prospective parents across Colorado, equipping them to scoop up children languishing under state care and adopt or foster them into a loving family. Thanks to Project 1.27 and parallel efforts run directly by churches throughout the state, there were no children waiting to be adopted in Colorado by the end of 2012.
Taking its name from James 1:27 (“look after orphans and widows in their distress”), Project 1.27 is not an adoption agency itself, but rather educates parents on the legal, financial, and emotional issues involved in adoption and fostering. Parents pay a nominal $100 administrative fee, and all other expenses of being trained and legally certified are covered by donors. It costs the organization an average of $5,000 to help a family adopt one child. That compares to $50,000 of annual cost to the government to maintain one child in the foster-care system.
Families interested in adopting or fostering are recruited by Project 1.27 from affiliated churches. They are given 36 hours of training over a period of several weeks. Church leaders and members of the local community are also offered the organization’s services, because families that adopt or foster will need the support of friends and neighbors. The organization shepherds the volunteer family through the required paperwork. It helps church leaders establish parent support groups and adoption resources within their congregations. And it coaches and encourages parents throughout their engagement with the foster-care system.
Having completely eliminated the backlog of kids languishing in state care in Colorado, Project 1.27 is now looking to expand. Recently Pastor Gelinas, who has himself adopted five children with his wife, told an audience in Arizona that if “people of faith step up and open their lives and their hearts…it is possible that a foster-care system can be emptied.” —Naomi Schaefer Riley
In New Mexico, with a population of 2 million spread out over 120,000 square miles and just one academic health center to serve them all, many residents have access only to basic primary care. Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes), a philanthropically supported telemedicine initiative, aims to radically and inexpensively expand the availability of expert care to rural patients. The mechanism is simple: local family doctors join weekly videoconferences with a panel of specialists, where they present their patients’ cases and receive advice on what treatments to pursue.
The program began with a focus on improving treatment for hepatitis C, a major problem in New Mexico. It has since developed a capacity to address many chronic conditions. The latest addition is mental-health services offered by video link, with support from the GE Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. —Caitrin Nicol
Hitting Pay Dirt
Lloyd Noble was an Oklahoma oilman whose legacy to his beloved home state has endured far longer than any mere gusher. He was born pre-statehood in Ardmore, then part of the Chickasaw Nation. After stints teaching in rural schools and studying at the University of Oklahoma, Lloyd and a partner bought a drilling rig. In 1926 they struck gold—or its Sooner liquid equivalent—in the famed Seminole field. By the 1930s, oil had made Lloyd Noble a very wealthy man.
While he prospered, however, his agricultural neighbors suffered. The Dust Bowl was laying waste his state, and driving many of its small farmers California-ward. Noble was convinced that the widespread soil erosion and barren fields of Oklahoma were due, in part, to short-sighted farming practices. So his philanthropy sought, in a sense, to recycle dust back into dirt. In 1945 he established the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, a central mission of which was to help Oklahoma’s farmers and ranchers “practice land stewardship and resource conservation.”
Today, the foundation encourages sustainable agricultural practices through research and consultation with farmers, ranchers, and scholars. The Noble Foundation has also awarded more than $300 million in grants to local charities, and scholarships to young Oklahomans, with links to the field of agriculture.
As a footnote (though to Sooner fans, football is anything but a footnote), Lloyd Noble is also the man who revived Oklahoma’s pigskin program in the mid-1940s. He was, as an ESPN profile put it, “the most charitable and influential regent O.U. had ever seen,” and his benefactions ranged from paying bonuses to top-flight professors out of his own pocket to luring coach Bud Wilkinson to Norman. The guy just couldn’t help hitting pay dirt. —Bill Kauffman
A Zoo that Doesn’t Guilt-Trip
When the Fort Worth Zoo was owned and operated by the city, money was scarce, facilities were outdated, and attendance was dropping. In 1991, the middling public facility was almost forced to close due to lack of funds. Then Ramona Bass, a local animal lover from a wealthy family, suggested moving control of the zoo to a non-profit association.
The transfer from city to non-profit control not only saved the Fort Worth Zoo, but created a unique institution that emphasizes mutual prosperity between humans and wildlife.
More substantively, Bass suggested a new mission for the zoo. Frustrated by increasingly negative zoo narratives of people versus planet—a zero-sum game where one side prospers only at the expense of the other—she envisioned a facility that recognized shared interests between humans and animals, and “strengthened the bond between humans and the environment by promoting responsible stewardship of wildlife.”
Bass recruited impressive support from individuals and local businesses, built an unusually diverse board that included people like wildlife experts at corporations and professors of agriculture, and was able to create innovative programming that visitors could find nowhere else. The new zoo was simultaneously pro-animal and pro-human, with striking new displays that highlight harmonious co-existence, rather than walling off wildlife. (Their black bears, for instance, were placed in a facsimile of an abandoned lumbering camp, emphasizing recovery and intelligent adaptation.) Even the logo for the section of the zoo on Texas wildlife—a human hand print overlapping a coyote track—emphasizes mutual prosperity.
Since its transfer from public management, the association-run zoo has raised more than $20 million in private funding and opened 16 new permanent exhibits and facilities. Attendance has doubled, and the Fort Worth Zoo is now rated near the top in the U.S. —Karl Zinsmeister
A Bubbling Introduction to Business
Visitors to the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco can get a refreshing lesson in the history of free enterprise through the model of an industry built on fun and fancy—the soft drink business. The W. W. “Foots” Clements Free Enterprise Institute, which is run by the museum, was founded in 1997 to realize Clements’ dream of educating the public on the many creative nuances and social benefits of creating successful businesses.
Clements began his career as a truck driver, joined the Dr. Pepper Company, and gradually worked his way up the corporate ladder. He eventually led the company to great success and visibility as president and CEO. After retiring in the 1980s, Clements set out to educate young people on the principles of free enterprise through the Dr. Pepper Museum.
“Advertising and Marketing, Kid-style” is a day-long program put on by the Clements Institute that walks students through the development, production, and marketing process. Students first tour the museum’s exhibits—which include a replica of an old corner drugstore and a section of bottling equipment—to get acquainted with the principal product and the soft-drink industry in general. Then they get a crash course in entrepreneurship, with hands-on training that leads them to create their own product, logo, and marketing campaign, including a video commercial. Staff members judge the finished products and marketing materials, giving students a taste of market competition—and the hard work it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur. —Kari Barbic
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