Monday, Jan. 4, 2016 | 9:40 p.m.
In the first few years of grade school, Co-Founder of PT’s Pubs Tom Boeckle struggled reading. Dyslexia was a big handicap, a humiliating one that he said was a source of anxiety in school.
“I virtually couldn’t read,” he said. "I never had anyone sit down to teach me the fundamentals."
After PT’s was sold, Boeckle pivoted to technology as a tool for helping students with literacy before entering preschool.
On Monday, as the Consumer Electronics Show rolled into town, his company Square Panda launched its first product and announced the backing of tennis legend Andre Agassi, also a Las Vegas local interested in improving education.
As chairman of the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, the former No. 1 receives hundreds of pitches each year, he said at a news conference, and declines to fund 99 percent of them. But one thing that appealed to him about Square Panda, whose first product focuses on phonics, is that it targets a skill at the core of learning. He called reading a “barometer of success.”
"It has a real scalable impact,” he said in his reasoning for putting his name behind Square Panda’s new venture. "Children spend until third grade learning how to read. And from third-grade on they need reading to learn. It’s a direct barometer of success."
Square Panda’s "phonics play-set" aims to create a one-on-one environment to help children develop the basics of reading before they enter kindergarten. Through interactive games, users arrange physical letters to spell different words that are illustrated on the iPad screen in different animated games. The games include visuals. A picture of a cat appears, for instance, after spelling the word.
This multisensory approach allows for better reinforcement, argued Andy Butler, CEO of the Silicon Valley-based company.
Square Panda’s product is being piloted at several Head Start chapters in the Las Vegas area. In addition to its management having strong ties to the community, the company also has an office here.
The phonics play-set product, which starts at $99 as an iPad accessory and increases in price with subscription options, began taking pre-order requests after the announcement Monday.
Agassi will serve as a board member for Square Panda. Both he and his foundation are major shareholders. A spokesperson for Square Panda did not release details of those investments.
Born in Las Vegas, Agassi has been active in the education community here since the 1990s. One of his foundation’s most recognizable projects is the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a K-12 charter school in West Las Vegas.