The woman who reinvented New Orleans’ educational landscape, Leslie Jacobs is now focused on the city’s workforce problems.
Leslie Jacobs is a successful businesswoman. Along with her brother, Steven Rosenthal, and her dad, Stan Rosenthal, she helped transform her family’s small, independent insurance agency, the Rosenthal Agency, into one of the largest insurance agencies in the state of Louisiana, and one of the top 100 in the nation.
But what Jacobs is most known for is her work not in insuring clients, but in ensuring the future success of her home state as an award-winning education reform advocate that in 2011 earned recognition from Forbes magazine as one of the seven most powerful educators on the planet.
Jacobs served on the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) from 1996 to 2008, during which she was a key driver in instituting school accountability. Louisiana began giving scores to schools in 1999, five years before “No Child Left Behind” was introduced on the national level.
She was also critical in the development of the Recovery School District. Created by a constitutional amendment passed in 2003, the RSD was charged with managing schools that had been failing for five or more years. At the time the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina, RSD was managing five schools, all charter schools from Orleans Parish.
Post-Katrina, the Recovery School District legislation was amended, and as it applied to New Orleans, it created the obligation for BESE to take over any school that was below the state average. In Orleans Parish, that included all but a handful of schools.
Jacobs also worked to recruit quality charter school operators, like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). New Orleans currently has the largest percentage of charter schools in the nation — all but two schools are charter as of this fall.
The result of these efforts, according to a report published in July by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, was improvement in “the quantity, quality and equity of schooling in the city on almost every available measure,” including average test scores, high school graduation rates and both college attendance and graduation rates.
With all she has accomplished in the educational arena, however, Jacobs stresses that she is a businesswoman first, and as such is concerned with the city’s workforce issues. After decades spent working in the K-12 realm, her attention is now turned to post-secondary problems. Three years ago, she formed her latest nonprofit venture (following 504Ward and Educate Now), a program called Youth Force NOLA that is dedicated to ensuring New Orleans’ youth know all the options available to them and how to get where they want to be.
Leslie Jacobs’ entire career has married business and educational efforts. Included in her resume is the following: Orleans Parish School Board (1992-1996), State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (1996-2008), Founder of nonprofit 504Ward (2008) – effort to retain young professionals in New Orleans, Founder of nonprofit Educate Now (2008) – effort to maintain and expand reforms in Orleans Parish schools, Past Chair of GNO, Inc., Vice Chair of New Orleans Business Alliance, Vice Chair of New Orleans Business Council, CEO of the New Orleans Startup Fund, Board leadership on Young Leadership Council, CBNO/MAC and The Idea Village.
Student achievement, measured by test scores, improved by 8-16 percentiles. High school graduation rates increased by 3-9 percentage points. College entry rates grew by 8-15 percentage points. College persistence, which refers to students who completed at least two years of college, increased by 4-7 percentage points. College graduation improved 3-5 percentage points.
You are known for your work in education, but your first big foray into trying to solve problems through public policy actually came in worker’s comp reform. Can you talk about that a little?
The worker’s comp crisis was crippling businesses in the late ’80s and early ’90s. At the time, my father had died and I was president of Rosenthal Agency. There were three bills filed in the legislature to try and fix things. One was filed by then-Senator Mike Foster, one was filed by then-Representative Charlie Melançon, who went on to become a U.S. congressman, and one was filed by then-Senator Larry Bankston, who went to prison. So, I was in my office — I was, I think, 31 or 32 — and I’m reading these bills and I’m thinking, ’What are these guys doing? They will shut down business in Louisiana!’
So, I ended up working through LABI [with Clark Cosse] during which I went to Baton Rouge and walked into one of those backroom meetings they had before they renovated the Senate, and they had, at the front table, the three authors of the bills, Bankston, Foster and Melançon, and some other people. There was also a woman lobbyist named Phyllis Perron — we were the only two women in a room that had probably about 100 people, and I was the youngest by many years, and I think I was the only person who actually knew the insurance industry. Everybody else were lobbyists and staff members for various legislators, and by the end of the meeting, people are asking a question and I would be answering it.
At the end, they picked Mike Foster’s bill to proceed, and he called me over. He said, “Go fix my bill.” That’s how I met Mike Foster, and I like to say that Clark Cosse and I gave birth to the Louisiana Worker’s Compensation Corporation on my dining room table. I basically worked on all the real mechanics of how this thing would work and left intact the politics of who’s on the board. Then when Foster went on to become governor, he made certain that I ended up on the board of the LWCC when it was formed, and the formation of the LWCC really solved Louisiana’s worker’s comp crisis. We had to pass a constitutional amendment because it was backed with the full faith and credit of the state when we did it.
And that was my christening, so to say. Trial by fire.
So how did you get involved in education? I know you’re a parent of two daughters. Is that why you got involved?
I was 23, 24 years old, had a young child and was working full-time and was pretty isolated and wanted to get involved in something. I went looking for something to do, and I ended up choosing to become a business partner in the Partners in Education Program, which was offered by the Orleans Parish School Board. So my brother and I became a business partner of an elementary school, which at the time was Laurel Elementary School, on Jackson Avenue — it is now SciTech.
We were very engaged business partners. I went on to chair the Partners in Education Committee city-wide, and I was recruited to run for the school board by some business executives.
Knowing what I know today about politics, if I had known, I would have said I was unelectable.
Yes, you ran, and won for the school board as a newcomer in a majority African American district. How did that happen?
It was a very defining experience for me. I knocked on doors. I walked the housing projects, and in walking, it was very soon clear to me that whether it was a single, poor, black mother or an affluent mother, people wanted the same things for their children — a good education. I was elected to the board feeling this amazing sense of responsibility that I needed to improve schools. My journey in education really started, or was framed by so much of that sense of responsibility, to the voters who elected me because I won in a district where I wasn’t supposed to win. People put their faith in me and I needed to deliver.
A recent report by Education Research Alliance praised New Orleans’ educational changes post-Katrina, which you were obviously integral in creating. Do you think our schools are good? How would you define a good school?
There are two ways to measure a school: one is how do kids perform academically on any given day? That’s measuring student performance. That is a very fair way to judge a school.
Another way to judge a school is to measure how well the adults in the building are doing educating children. That’s called a growth model. So, if I have a student who comes in four grade levels behind, I may be an amazing teacher, but they’re not going to score well on those tests. So, I want to measure the improvement. How much academic gains did that student make in a school year?
Louisiana is a very poor state. It has a very high minority population relative to the country, and so we have lower performing subgroups in our state, which means we will perform poorly nationally. I mean, we just do, and it’s the same thing if you take a school that’s serving all low-income, minority youth, and you take a school that’s serving all middle class or above youth with you know, two parent, college educated households, you can almost predict the wide variance in school that’s irrespective of how good the teaching is in either school.
So, before Katrina, if you looked at how New Orleans students performed compared to the state, we performed the best closest to the state averages in third grade and furthest from the state with our high school students. The longer we had them, the further behind from the state average they got because we were not achieving a full academic year of growth in an academic year.
Today, if you look at the performance, we are closest to the state’s average at high school. It’s the inverse. We are catching kids up. And so we do better, compared to the state, in our end product than in the early years. Before Katrina, it was the reverse.
What would you say we need to do going forward? If Louisiana isn’t changing as far as poverty levels, do we have a chance to bridge the gap?
We have to do more than what we’re doing because in today’s world, the goal isn’t just education, the goal is that our students have good life outcomes, and part of that is earning a living wage and being able to support your family and breaking the generations of poverty.
So, what I’m focused on, in this next chapter of my life, is really how do we improve the post-secondary outcome for our high school students? How do we connect? How do we better prepare them for the world of work and how to navigate that world of work? How do we have options, where if they choose this option after high school, their odds of success are greater than their odds of failure?
In the state of Louisiana, the six-year graduation rate is below 50 percent for African American students at every college in Louisiana. So, if a student chooses to go to a Louisiana institution right now, and they take on all of this debt, their odds of success are less than their odds of failure. We have to improve those options. We have to make it so that they can go on to post-secondary and their likelihood of success is much higher. Ideally, they can do it with a lot less debt.
Or, if they start college and it’s not for them or they don’t go to college, they know how to go find a job, other than a minimum wage service job. Because there are tons and tons of jobs in our regional market where people can earn a good wage and not need a four-year degree. I think there’s a report that shows that overwhelmingly, the jobs that will be created in the next decade are middle skill jobs that require some post-secondary education, but not a four-year degree.
I believe our K-12 education system in New Orleans is doing a significantly better job graduating students with the numeracy and literacy they need to succeed in the workplace. But many of our graduates are coming from generational poverty, and they haven’t learned the other components that one needs to navigate the work force successfully.
Can you talk about your past experience in workforce development a bit?
When I began getting active in GNO, Inc., I chaired their regional workforce efforts for a number of years. When I was on the State Board of Education, I chaired the high school redesign efforts. I have spent a lot of my life trying to bridge the silos between the employment sector and the education sector in order to get a trained work force.
People talk a lot about the need for “soft skills” —teaching our youth things like how to show up on time and how to speak with customers, but you say it’s about more than that?
Soft skills is too simple. For example, If I have a friend whose son dropped out of college, for whatever reason, they’ll go to me and they’ll go to their peers and they’ll say, ’You know of any jobs?’ And that young person will get in a middle wage job. However, when a poor kid, who’s got the academics, drops out of college and goes to his friends and family for help getting a job, he lands in a minimum wage job. It’s the connectivity — the resiliency to understand that you have all these skills and knowing how to pivot.
You’ve run a few nonprofits before, 504Ward and Educate Now, but your most recent endeavor is called YouthForce NOLA. Can you talk a little about that?
Yes, I am now chairman of YouthForce NOLA, which is a nonprofit focused on working with high schools and high school students to better prepare them for the world of work. Part of what we’re doing is trying to broaden our students’ understanding of what career options are out there for them.
In the New Orleans area, we have a tremendous number of opportunity youth — kids age 16 to 24, not working and not in school. A majority of our opportunity youth are high school graduates with some college. The fact is that they don’t know how to navigate the world when they’re done with their academics.
As an example, one of our high school grads went to LSU on TOPS, but life interfered and he couldn’t stay. This young man has a 23 ACT in math and he’s bagging groceries at Walmart. I would say that young person has a lot more potential to earn a good wage and have a career, but while we may have prepared him academically, we did not prepare him outside of academics for how to navigate the world.
We need our youth to know not just what jobs are available, but how do you get that door open to that job? What training do you need and how do you get it?
Part of YouthForce NOLA is a strong internship program, right?
Yes, this summer we just had 200 rising seniors complete a 150-hour paid internship program with 88 different employers. Part of that is the education piece, part of that is the employer piece. Because I come from the private sector, quite honestly, I’m able to communicate to employers about this internship. I have the relationships to ask them to take interns, and the credibility to say, “This is why it will work and this is why it’s important.”
What are your goals with this nonprofit?
Our goal is that 10 percent of the graduating class of 2020 will have one of these internships, so we’ve been scaling things up. Two hundred kids and 88 businesses for 150 hours is a lot. I mean, that is a big program lift from having started at nothing three summers ago.
Recently there was a story on the news about a New Orleans native, a young man whose car broke down before his first day of work, so he walked 20 miles to get to work. His boss was so impressed he gave him a car. Obviously, work ethic was not a problem there.
Here’s my reaction: that’s a great story that got a lot of attention, but then I think someone didn’t teach that kid good problem-solving skills in the real world because there was some other way to solve that problem. Again, it wasn’t a motivation problem. It wasn’t a work ethic problem, but there’s more awareness that that young person needed in problem solving.
As a city too, we need to recognize the barriers that young people face. This summer, Youth Force NOLA had to hire buses to take young people to Ochsner, Intralox and Gibbs Construction for internships. A lot of the employment market is in Jefferson Parish, where there’s no public transportation. So, you know, we may have a great kid, a great young person who is ready to be a really good employee, but they don’t have a car. How do they get to surrounding parishes for a job? Or if you live New Orleans East, it could be an hour bus ride to get to Ochsner on Napoleon Avenue.
We need to start understanding: How do we knock down these barriers — some are blatant and some are hidden — to better connect the young talent to the opportunity?
Workforce development seems to be an issue that is affecting every industry.
We now have a labor shortage, so people are going to care a great deal about work force. So, they’re going to be willing, I think, to step up and invest in areas they may not have invested in before, or take a gamble on a young person that they may have been unwilling to before.
You and your brother Steven are also working right now on a new effort for this fall — can you tell us anything about that?
Yes, it’s a nonprofit called Belltower. We’re not ready to disclose everything we’re doing because the cake is still being baked, but I can tell you it’s going to be about new programs, new offerings that we believe will give students the opportunity of getting associates and bachelor’s degrees without incurring a lot of debt. It will be about creating better options if they want to go to a traditional four-year college in Louisiana that hopefully includes some programs that are designed around their needs and will help them have better success rates in college.
Are you hopeful for the future when it comes to our workforce?
For the first time in my life, I think the sun, the moon and the stars are aligned in New Orleans. I think we can create something exciting, and we will be the first city in the country to really think through how we get good options for all of our graduates and approach it as a city, because there is employer engagement.
I think we are in this really wonderful place that if we can figure out how to solve for some of these barriers, we have the opportunity to do two things: provide industry with a good work force and help our young people break generational cycles of poverty.
Favorite Book? “Lord of the Rings”
Favorite TV Show? “Downton Abbey”
Biggest life lesson learned? Go narrow. Go deep. To have impact, pick one thing and do it well.
Best advice ever received? Do your homework. There were many days early in my career when I was the youngest person or the only woman in the room. A mentor advised me that credibility and influence would come from knowledge and preparation.
Hobbies? Biking, hiking and reading.
Daily habits? Tab: I drink two a day.
Pet peeve(s)? People who are chronically late.
What are you most looking forward to in the next year? Helping to launch a new nonprofit, Belltower, that will focus on improving economic and life outcomes for New Orleans public school graduates.