In the long slog toward reversing decades of decline in local public schools, 2011 ranks as a breakout year. Student test scores climbed higher than ever. More schools got off the "failing" list. And voters wholeheartedly backed a statewide effort to elect reform-minded candidates to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
In and out of the educational arena, 2011 was a year that taught the value of focusing on the three R's — recovery, rebuilding and renaissance. Our New Orleanians of the year for 2011 brought a one-two punch to those efforts — Tulane University President Scott Cowen from his namesake education reform institute and venture philanthropist Leslie Jacobs from the political and civic trenches.
"Scott Cowen and Leslie Jacobs have very different styles but share a deep commitment and passion for improving our community," says Jay Lapeyre, president of the Business Council of New Orleans. He has worked with both our honorees — as a member of Tulane's board of trustees and as a member of the advisory board of Jacobs' Educate Now! nonprofit. "They have each brought clear, principled decision making and extraordinary perseverance and leadership to many of the recovery and reform initiatives critical to the future of our city and region."
Tulane University's president helped his school and his adopted city after Hurricane Katrina. Both are now stronger than ever.
By David Thier
Scott Cowen was confused when he first moved to New Orleans. Having grown up in New Jersey and having spent most of his adult life in Cleveland, New Orleans was, as he puts it, "quite different."
"It was the little things," he says. "Like the condition of the roads and the sidewalks. It was quite different than what I was used to seeing."
He soon learned how to adapt to the local culture, however. Thirteen years later, Cowen is every bit a New Orleanian. Engaging, gregarious and still built like a linebacker at 65, he has the kind of cannonball personality that can only be contained by the city he now calls home. His local chops were hard-earned, too.
Through the crucible of Hurricane Katrina, Cowen rebuilt Tulane into an institution with an even more enviable national reputation than before the storm and a renewed focus on public service by students. He also founded The Cowen Institute and became an integral part of the revitalization of public schools in New Orleans. The key, for him, was the city itself. "I was born and raised in the Garden State, but now the Bayou State is my home," he says.
When Cowen arrived at Tulane in 1998, it was a very different place. Over the years, Tulane had developed a national and international stature, but in some ways its success distanced the institution from the strange and particular city of its birth. Despite being the largest private employer in the city, by the time Cowen arrived in 1998, Tulane had stopped feeling like part of New Orleans.
That all changed in the autumn of 2005.
On Aug. 27 of that year, just two days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana, Cowen took the stage at the convocation for the newly arrived class of 2009 wearing Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt. The incoming freshmen had arrived just a few days before, but he told them to leave because of the hurricane.
Cowen then girded himself for one of the greatest challenges faced by any university president. He stayed in the city for five days as his campus flooded, then evacuated to Houston where he assembled a skeleton crew to chart the university's future.
In addition to the daunting task of rebuilding Tulane in the face of $650 million worth of storm damages, Cowen also found he had a new and much broader civic role to play in the city's recovery. He was charged with leading a committee that focused on public education as part of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back commission.
Initially, Cowen's task appeared to be an ad-hoc assignment that consisted mostly of reopening a patchwork system of public schools, wherever possible in light of the flood waters, and getting as many students back in the classroom as they could. But he and other commission members quickly recognized that bringing back a failed public school system wasn't good enough. They started looking for ways to reinvent public education in New Orleans, and their work helped lay the foundation for the wave of public education reform that followed the storm.
Meanwhile, Tulane experienced a similar renaissance. Immediately after the storm, university students pitched in like everyone else in the battered city. In those days, public service was a necessity — a foregone conclusion even. But afterwards, Tulane students and faculty members found themselves woven into the fabric of the city in a new way.
As it became clear that Tulane was a different university as a result of Hurricane Katrina, Cowen made sure the university would always keep its relationship with the city central to its mission by folding public service into the core curriculum for undergraduates. Tulane is the first university in the country to make public service an undergraduate requirement.
"If it is not in your DNA to rebuild Tulane and New Orleans, don't come back," he said to a group of students and parents in the months following the storm.
He believes that commitment to public service is the driving force behind a historic surge in applications. This year Tulane received 44,000 applications — more than any other private institution in the country and twice what it received in 2005. Tulane also enjoys the highest undergraduate retention rate of its 177-year history.
Along the way, Cowen's work with public education went from being a post-storm necessity to a passion — and a transformational part of New Orleans.
In 2007, as the Recovery School District and local charter schools were making national headlines, the college president launched the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, a think tank based at Tulane and designed to sustain the momentum behind K-12 education reform in New Orleans.
In 2011, Cowen signed a first-of-its-kind agreement with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) New Orleans charter schools and the KIPP Foundation to enroll more KIPP graduates in Tulane — and to place more Tulane teacher certification program students in KIPP schools. He also cemented a partnership between the Cowen Institute and Teach for America to increase the number of Tulane graduates who will teach in New Orleans public schools.
While helping to rebuild and renew public schools in New Orleans, Cowen in 2011 also laid the groundwork for bringing Tulane football back to the Uptown campus with the announcement that a new on-campus stadium would be built. And his civic engagement stretched beyond education to include service on Mayor Mitch Landrieu's new Public Belt Railroad board after a scandal rocked the city-owned rail spur.
Cowen tends to be modest in his descriptions of both the university's and his role in New Orleans' post-Katrina recovery, citing the huge number of people involved in volunteer efforts, public education and Tulane. Those around him are much quicker to sing his praises.
"What Scott Cowen did for Tulane University after the storm is nothing short of miraculous," says Bill Goldring, a 25-year member of Tulane's board of trustees and Gambit's 2004 New Orleanian of the Year. He now is a trustee emeritus. "A large portion of the campus was underwater, and he had to send all of his students around the country to other schools. He had no revenue. He could have quit and no one would have faulted him. Tulane could have closed its doors. Yet, in just one semester, Scott got Tulane back on its feet and then proceeded to use that inflection point to transform the university."
Cowen's efforts have earned him notice outside New Orleans as well. President Barack Obama appointed him to the White House Council for Community Solutions, which advises the president on mobilizing citizens, nonprofits, businesses and government to address community needs. He also was elected vice chair of the Association of American Universities, a select group of 61 North American universities with pre-eminent programs of graduate and professional education and scholarly research.
Today, more than six years after the storm, Tulane University enjoys an unprecedented level of prominence. New Orleans has changed in ways nobody could have expected, and Cowen believes the city now has the commitment — and the political culture — to finally deal with the complex problems that have dogged it for decades. And he believes education — public, private, K-12 and higher education — will play a crucial role in charting the future of New Orleans.
Cowen's recent efforts also will bear fruit in 2012, as Tulane will serve as the host institution for the 2012 Men's Final Four, which will be a huge economic boost for New Orleans. On campus, Cowen launched "Tulane Empowers," a university-wide effort to use the knowledge, expertise and energy of Tulane to empower others to build a better world.
"There's a culture of social innovation and entrepreneurship that's leading to younger people coming to New Orleans and wanting to be part of the rebuilding," he says. "I have a lot of comfort that there's a new will and determination to deal headlong with these issues."
Tulane now is inextricably bound up in that culture and in the life of the city, as is Cowen himself. He came here for a job, he says, but now he'll stay until he retires — and live out his days as a New Orleanian.
* The original version of this story misstated Scott Cowen's age. He is 65.
The insurance executive-turned-public education reformer proved that venture philanthropy — with a large dose of grit and determination — can be an irresistable force.
By Allison Good
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called New Orleans the most improved school district in the country last April. With close to 80 percent of its students in charter schools, 2011 was a banner year for Orleans Parish public schools. The district could not have reached that mark, though, without the efforts of education reform advocate and venture philanthropist Leslie Jacobs.
A native of New Orleans, Jacobs became involved in public education while a businesswoman at the Rosenthal Agency, a small family-owned insurance brokerage firm she built with her brother Steve. In the late 1980s, Jacobs started as a business partner to an elementary school across from the St. Thomas housing development, providing needing supplies and services. From there, she chaired a partnership program that connected business leaders to public education, and in 1992 she was recruited to run for the Orleans Parish School Board as part of the Excellence in Education reform movement.
Jacobs brought a determination and grit to the task of dismantling old, broken paradigms and replacing them with new ones. It has made her a formidable champion of education reform.
Jacobs won her school board race and took office in January 1993. After serving more than three years on the local board — including a stint as vice president — she was appointed to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) by then-Gov. Mike Foster. Jacobs remained on BESE under Foster and his successor, Gov. Kathleen Blanco. As a member of the state education board, she played a leading role in reshaping public education statewide, including the establishment of Louisiana's school district accountability system, which includes LEAP tests and performance scores.
"In school, the accountability analogy is getting a report card, and it was incumbent upon schools to figure out how to improve themselves, to force school boards and communities to focus on their schools," Jacobs explains. "The first school report cards came out in 1999, and it was clear New Orleans had the majority of failing schools in the state."
In 2000, Jacobs and her brother sold Rosenthal Agency to Hibernia National Bank, now Capital One, and she forged ahead with school reform advocacy. The state had given New Orleans' failing schools extra money and resources as a result of the initial report cards, but local schools weren't turning around. In early 2003, Jacobs approached Foster with the proposal for the Recovery School District (RSD). He bought in, and later that year Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment creating the entity that is putting Jacobs' reform ideas into practice.
"I felt incompetence was harder to fix than corruption, and in Orleans Parish there was both," Jacobs says. "Everyone was trapped in a failed system incapable of righting itself, and the only model in the country for intervening in failed urban school districts was a takeover. ... The thought process behind the RSD was that we needed something different, so it was modeled after Chapter 11 bankruptcy in business. We would put a failing school in the RSD, which had the power to make sweeping changes to that school to allow it to go on its way and succeed."
The RSD received its first school in 2004, and when the federal levees failed during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, five New Orleans schools were already in the district.
In the aftermath of Katrina, Blanco summoned lawmakers into a special session to pass Act 35, which ultimately took more than 100 failed public schools away from the scandal-plagued Orleans Parish School Board. When local public schools reopened in 2006, all but 16 were under the jurisdiction of the RSD.
As the RSD took the reins at dozens of schools in New Orleans, Jacobs shifted her focus slightly — to get behind the local charter school movement. One of her first successes came shortly before the storm, when she flew to Houston to recruit charter school operator KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program) to open its first New Orleans school in July 2005. Today, KIPP operates eight elementary and middle schools and a high school that covers ninth and 10th grades only.
Though her tenure on BESE ended three years ago, Jacobs continues to influence the city's recovery — and educational reform efforts — through philanthropy.
"When I sold my business, I said I was going to do some venture philanthropy because you aren't just giving money, you are personally involved in that effort," she explains.
In 2008 Jacobs founded two organizations that reflected her commitment to venture philanthopy: 504ward, an group dedicated to retaining talented young 20- and 30-somethings in New Orleans; and Educate Now!, a nonprofit committed to reforming New Orleans public schools.
Jacobs' optimism and passion for her hometown is reflected in 504ward. According to Educate Now!'s website, the organization strives to engage the thousands of young movers and shakers who came to town with what she calls the "dual aspirations of sparking social change and advancing their careers." Jacobs recruited local partners from the business community to address issues pertinent to these young professionals — career opportunities, social engagement and opportunity for community impact.
Since its inception, 504ward has connected thousands of new New Orleanians to their adopted city and each other.
"Leslie has this intutition and real business knowledge that produce results," says 504ward executive director Jessica Shahien. "504ward could have easily been just something talked about at cocktail parties, but Leslie actually did something. I think what distinguishes her is that when she puts her mind to something, it's going to happen."
On a similar track, Educate Now! became an integral component of public school reform, working on the facilities master plan and framing issues for long-term governance. (The RSD was never envisioned as a permanent solution to failing schools. The lingering questions are when — and how — to transfer the improved schools back to local governance.) Educate Now! also is the source for comparative data about how public schools are doing locally and statewide.
Jacobs' education reform efforts produced outstanding results this year. The District Performance Score for Orleans Parish, which was 56.9 in 2005, reached 83.2 in 2011, according to information provided by Jacobs. In 2005, before her efforts took hold in Orleans Parish, only 35 percent of local students scored at basic or above the proficiency goal on standardized tests, compared to 58 percent for the state — but in 2011 the rates were an unprecedented 56 percent for New Orleans and 66 percent for Louisiana. This year, the percentage of African-American students at basic or above the proficiency goal in Orleans Parish was 2 points ahead of the statewide percentage for African-American students, which represents a 114 percent local improvement rate in just four years.
"The gains we've made are really transformational and inspiring to people outside New Orleans," Jacobs says. "You have Teach For America and KIPP and foundations across the United States coming back to New Orleans as something really special. They can see the energy and synergy firsthand. People are willing to come back to the city because they're excited about the education space, which is appreciating and empowering talent."
In addition to her work with 504ward and Educate Now!, Jacobs also serves as acting CEO of the New Orleans Startup Fund, chair of GNO Inc., vice chair of New Orleans Business Alliance, vice chair of the New Orleans Business Council, and chairwoman of the Southeast Regional Business Council Coalition. That breadth of involvement has earned her the admiration of a large coterie of local business and civic leaders.
"It is impossible to fully capture the breadth of Leslie's impact in our community, to understand what Leslie has contributed to the lives changed by our improving public education system, to understand the hope and effectiveness Leslie has given so many initiatives, and to appreciate the ripple effect of her work," says New Orleans Business Council president Jay Lapeyre.
Jacobs says her main focus is for New Orleans to have the state's best school district in the next few years.
"I think when we hit the 10-year anniversary of Katrina, the improvement will be there for all to see, and it's going to be irrefutable," she says. "I just feel New Orleans and the region have such tremendous opportunity right now, and we have to seize it."