What Would Andre Do?

Administration crumbles at a much-touted private school

Damon Hodge

Where's Andre? And does he know what's going on at his school?

These questions were asked early and often last week as a town hall-style forum to address problems at Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy disintegrated into a fracas of parents haranguing administrators and other parents, allegations that principal Kim Allen runs a junta-like regime (mass firings, students told they're "ghetto"), culminating with the arrest of activist-provocateur Marzette Lewis.

San Jose, California, playing in the Siebel Open. That answers the first question. As for the second, here's Agassi Charitable Foundation board member Mark Fine: "Mr. Agassi has no day-to-day involvement. He is the visionary."

What's become of that vision is unsettling.

The firings and resignations—nearly a dozen since August—have left some classrooms without teachers for up to 45 minutes. Students in Spanish class have had five different teachers. At times, parents say, there are more substitutes than full-time teachers.

Passed out at a rally attended by nearly three dozen protestors before the meeting, an orange, two-page handout from the Agassi Parent Activist Organization outlined additional problems in the form of a six-question, multiple-choice quiz. (Where are the results of the standardized tests taken this past fall? Who is supposed to be legally serving on the board?) Attached was a list of five state laws on teacher licensing, student discipline, personnel evaluations and charter-school compliance laws.

During the rally, the crowd chanted, "What do we want? Education. When do we want it? Now," as fired teacher Jason Metzger (allegedly canned for gossiping) blamed Allen for cultivating a racially intolerant atmosphere where white instructors felt inferior and light-skinned black students were dismissed as not black enough.

"Where is Agassi?" filled the air as parent John Wilson said teacher departures have lowered student morale. Kids think they're to blame. Amid chants of "No Justice, No Peace," Carmen Diaz said administrators lied about the school's academic curricula (Agassi Prep has never been labeled inadequate, though some teachers say that's due to having a well-adjusted student populace) and recreational programing to court check-writing donors.

During the meeting, parents talked about unfulfilled hope. Angered over his son's expulsion, Dwayne Collins repeatedly shouted down Allen and Agassi foundation board Chairman Perry Rogers. A couple said Allen told them to remove their son if they didn't like the school. Allen apologized after a mother told attendants that students are routinely derided as "ghetto."

"I have used the term 'ghetto' a lot and I'm sorry for that," Allen said.

Collins would explode several more times, each louder and more vociferous than the last. At one point, it looked like he was going to hit Rogers, who'd decided early on he'd be Allen's mouthpiece (most of Allen's comments came from a prepared statement).

When Lewis, who's prone to theatricality and had been shushed by attendants for interrupting the meeting, went over her allotted two minutes, school security approached, but was rebuffed. In seconds, two Metro officers walked to the front of the auditorium and asked Lewis to leave. "Don't touch me," she shouted, pushing one of the officers. The tussle was on. Cops yanked the screaming activist out the door and propped her against a wall, where Lewis struggled to keep from being handcuffed. A good portion of the crowd trailed the action and chided cops for rough treatment. Cuffed, Lewis refused to walk, forcing cops to drag her on her butt through foliage before calling an ambulance. Lewis was charged with battery on a police officer and has a court date in May.

Rather than answer specific questions, Rogers was preoccupied with shifting blame away from Allen and onto himself.

It's his fault that Allen has teachers without administrative credentials acting in faculty roles—vice principal and dean. (Parents whose children have been disciplined aren't sure if the punishments carry weight).

Blame him, not Allen, for the mass layoffs. She's simply carrying his directive: Only hire the best teachers. "Those dismissed weren't the right fit," he says.

And those niggling regulations that have seen students cited for walking too slow or fast or forgetting pencils? Again, his work. "Yes, we have a strict code of conduct," he says.

Rogers' mea culpa soon wore thin. It didn't help that he spoke in condescending tones—a whiny drone when on the defensive; preachy when hyping the school's successes.

As the meeting wound down, Fine admitted that the board, charged with overseeing the school, had no idea about the severity of its problems. Previous board discussions revolved around test scores, not much else. "This type of meeting is helpful because now we can channel our resources into solving all of the problems."

Asked what Agassi might think of the school's status, Fine remarked: "He'd probably be concerned."

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