I’m finally face-to-face with Leslie Jacobs, the woman who was once described to me as the “bulldog” of education. Nothing intrigues me more than a backhanded compliment, so I set out to meet the “bulldog” who dedicated 23 years of her life to reforming education and got spit on for the trouble.
We meet in a St. Charles Avenue mansion fronted by stone columns reminiscent of Greece (and American bank buildings). She lives here. Fortunately for her, she looks nothing like a bulldog. In fact, with her petite frame, pixie haircut and All-American ensemble she could’ve played Peter Pan as well as Mary Martin, visually denying the pugnacious dog metaphor. If she buys her daily bread at Langenstein’s she’s not likely to attract much notice. But here’s a woman who is big. Real big.
I don’t tell her about the bulldog comment, not that she would be hurt by it. In fact, she would probably agree with the assessment. She talks fast, thinks fast and readily admits that she’s intensely devoted to school reform.
“I’m extremely passionate and committed to achieving excellence in New Orleans public schools,” she says. “And for the first time in 23 years, I feel like we are going to do it.”
During her years serving as a governor-appointed member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, she spearheaded or influenced every educational reform to flow from Baton Rouge in a dozen years. LEAP testing, the state takeover of New Orleans’ failing schools and charter schools were all part of a grand plan of accountability that began hatching in her mind in the mid-1990s when Gov. Foster plucked her from the Orleans Parish School Board and appointed her to his transition team.
When Hurricane Katrina came along and decimated the ossified Orleans Parish school system, the accountability she envisioned for New Orleans’ schools took flight almost overnight. The state had already created the Recovery School District and taken over five “failing” schools; Hurricane Katrina provided the impetus to take the remaining schools with low tests scores.
Already a fan of charter schools, Jacobs backed the charter school movement and actively courted the nationally recognized Knowledge Is Power Program to come to New Orleans. KIPP now operates three schools here with some stunning results.
All those reforms in quick succession created a lot of suspicion in a city with a long history of resistance to change. Many local educators and parents already were grumbling about LEAP testing that holds back fourth and eight grade students who can’t pass grade level tests. A complete overhaul of schools that had legions of loyal graduates was just too much for some to take.
“I had people spitting in my face,” Jacobs says. “[Accountability] was characterized as racist. I was told that I was against African-American students and didn’t want to see them graduate.”
Recent test scores, however, indicate that the reforms are beginning to pay off for many black students who attend Orleans Parish schools. Many charter schools are showing significant gains in basic skills testing after only two years of operation, even though they’re educating the same disadvantaged students who attended “failing” schools before Katrina. Other charters and some state-operated Recovery School District schools aren’t faring as well, but Jacobs says that it’s only a matter of time – five years in her estimation – that most Orleans Parish students will be attending “successful” schools as measured by student achievement tests and other state measurements.
“I believe we will be the national model for urban school reform within five years,” she says. “We are changing the educational futures of thousands of children. It’s very exciting.”
Jacobs bases her optimism on testing trends. She says that pre-Katrina, only 26 percent of Orleans Parish public school children achieved “basic” scores in English. This year, the figure is 36 percent, she says. She also estimates that only half of the parish’s students are attending “failing” schools in 2008, compared to two-thirds in ’05. By the ’09-’10 academic year, she predicts that only a third of the schools will get “failing” marks by the state, and all of them will either turnaround or disappear by ’12.
Even though Jacobs is no longer on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, she says she’s still working 20 and 30 hours a week on projects aimed at ensuring that her predictions come true. Among other things, she’s starting a Web-based organization called Education Now that will provide education information for the public.
She has come full circle. She didn’t start at the top echelon of educational influence. Her first foray into education reform started when her insurance brokerage company, Rosenthal Agency, partnered with Laurel Elementary School near the St. Thomas public housing development. Over the years, her agency donated over $500,000 to the school, leading to significant student achievement gains. One of the early donations she made, she says, was to finance a kindergarten graduation ceremony, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in her later journey to the state governing board.
When she asked why the school had a graduation ceremony for 5- and 6-year-olds, an administrator told her that the school wanted to make sure that their students experienced a graduation ceremony because few would graduate from high school.
“I didn’t know better, so I paid for it,” Jacobs says.
But the low expectations for Laurel’s children stuck like a tic in the brain and Jacobs eventually decided to change those expectations. She ran for the Orleans Parish School board and won in a majority black district. The three years she spent on that board convinced her that only major state reform could turn around the failing school system.
The experience that fired her up the most was the time she was asked to help judge applications for a scholarship. All the applicants had straight As on their transcripts but their essays were riddled with errors. “They were functionally illiterate,” she says.
But those bad old days are coming to a close, she insists. “We are breaking the mold. It needed to be broken.”