- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In June, former NBA star Kevin Johnson garnered 47 percent of the vote, par compared with the incumbent’s 40 percent, in his attempt to become mayor of his hometown of Sacramento, Calif. Since neither candidate received the threshold of 50 percent, voters will pick the new Sacramento mayor in the fall. No matter what the outcome is, Mr. Johnson does not need to be validated by the voters of Sacramento.

This remarkable young man was validated several years ago, when he retired from the Phoenix Suns, went back home and founded a charter school. Mr. Johnson’s St. Hope Academy boosts a rigorous, standards-based college preparatory curriculum, intensive interventions for students who are performing below their grade level, a defined character-development program and extensive leadership development and community outreach.

St. Hope is one of the best high schools in Sacramento, and is fast becoming known for its aggressive college preparation approach. Some facts: 81 percent of St. Hope’s graduates go to college, compared with the national average of 56 percent for black students, the predominant ethnic group of St. Hope students.

Mr. Johnson will be a great mayor, but he already has done great things.

Andre Agassi no longer rules the pro tennis circuit as he once did. One of the few men to ever win each of the major tennis championships, Mr. Agassi spends much of his time working on another major challenge: educating kids with humble backgrounds who live in his Las Vegas hometown. In 2001, Mr. Agassi founded the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a model charter school whose goal is to offer academic programs designed to enhance a child’s character - respect, motivation and self-discipline. Like Mr. Johnson, Mr. Agassi chose to open his school in one of Las Vegas’ most challenged neighborhoods. The majority of the children in his school are also black. Mr. Agassi’s school has done so well that it was named a National Model Charter School by the U.S. Department of Education. Mr. Agassi is a constant presence at his school, where he often brings potential funders and implores them to help the kids. When Mr. Agassi was named one of Time magazine’s 100 heroes, current tennis star Andy Roddick reported that he asked Mr. Agassi about his biggest regret in life. In his simple, yet revealing response, Mr. Agassi stated that he wished he had started his foundation years earlier.

In East Los Angeles, boxer Oscar de la Hoya has partnered with Green Dot to produce one of the best-performing high schools in the city. First, by donating his name, then $1 million, and finally, by committing to build a state-of-the-art gym on the school’s campus. Mr. de la Hoya’s commitment to his school and community is unparalled. He grew up in that East L.A. neighborhood, where he fervently believes other future success stories live. When walking the halls of Mr. de la Hoya’s school, self-pride and determination are apparent in both teachers and students. I spoke with several students who talked about honoring their neighborhood by not being held hostage in it. Like Mr. de la Hoya, these students want to excel in school and see the world. They will never, however, forget from whence they came. On that point, Mr. de la Hoya is a fitting role model. As one student put it, “we feel his support … We know he is one of us.”

Where are the other Kevin Johnsons, Andre Agassis and Oscar de la Hoyas? Why is it that most people don’t even know that these superior athletes have done more to make a difference when they passed their athletic prime than they did while they were at the top of their respective sports? I suppose those questions are more rhetorical than they should be. The fact is, however, that we don’t see in many athletes the kind of hands-on involvement exhibited by Mr. Johnson, Mr. Agassi and Mr. de la Hoya. For each, the work truly began when the ball stopped bouncing, the sweat stopped pouring and the fans stopped cheering.

In the game of life, we are ultimately judged by things other than athletic prowess, material success or popularity. Indeed, because of their steadfast commitment to the schools they founded, Messrs. Johnson, Agassi and de la Hoya are becoming legends - even in staid, traditional philanthropic circles. Each has done more than lend his name and money. Each has poured his heart and soul into the schools and the kids they serve. That is what makes them superstars.

Kevin P. Chavous, a former member of the D.C. Council, is a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and distinguished fellow with the Center for Education Reform. He also is the author of “Serving Our Children: Charter Schools and the Reform of American Public Education.”

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