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Former CEO has plan to fix Iowa Schools

Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 12:38 p.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 12:43 p.m. CST

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Mark Jacobs moved back to Iowa with the intent to make the public education system in his home state one of the best in the country again.

Tuesday, he spoke to the Rotary Club of Newton about his non-partisan and non-profit organization Reaching Higher Iowa.

“I’m a little concerned. I think one of the challenges we have in the education system is too much direction from the state and federal government telling people how to do the job,” Jacobs said. “I get a little bit concerned when that translates into the state ought to mandate a certain way, to manage a pre-school type of program. One of things I believe is we have all different types of districts in this state and what works here in Newton may not work in Marshalltown or some of our more rural districts.”

Jacobs, a product of the Des Moines public school system, said he believes Iowa’s position of national leadership for kindergarten through 12th grade has deteriorated significantly over the last 20 years. He said it will take years of transformative changes to restore that leadership position.

Rotarian Jeff Maki asked, “What are other top states doing that we are not?”

“One of the great success stories is Florida,” Jacobs replied. “They went from bottom floor tile to now a little bit above average ... They put a lot of emphasis on kindergarten through third grade learning. That is a real critical element. You learn to read from K through three, from fourth grade on you read to learn. So if you don’t have a good level of proficiency by the time you exit the third grade one of things Florida did is it doesn’t allow you to pass on to the fourth grade until you pass a reading comprehension test.”

The mission of Reaching Higher Iowa is to advocate for a more effective Iowa public education system to provide opportunities for every child and foster long-term economic growth in the state.

Jacobs believes this can happen by raising awareness of the need for improvement in Iowa public education and by advocating legislative and regulatory change.

“I’m a product of public education,” Jacobs said. “I come from a family of educators, dating back to my grandfather who was a superintendent for 18 years in the western Chicago suburbs. I’ve got a sister who was a classroom teacher and two nieces that are currently classroom teachers. For a lot of reasons I am incredibly passionate about it (public education).”

“I have been incredibly blessed in my life and have had some amazing opportunities and I trace it all back to the public education that I received in this state,” Jacobs continued. “When I graduated from high school in the 1980s, Iowa had the best public education system in the country. When I moved back I was saddened to see how far we had slipped.”

Jacobs recently retired as the CEO of Reliant Energy in Texas and decided to move back home to Iowa. While in Houston he served on the board for KIPP Houston, a charter high school network that had 9,500 students.

He believes his company has the right ideas to get Iowa public schools back to the top.

“Like any complex problem, we’ve got to take this one step at a time,” Jacobs said. “The first thing we need to do is to change the way we measure student achievement. By that I mean we need to have an assessment test that aligns with what we expect children to learn the Iowa assessment test we have today does not do that ... A big problem I see is our lack of awareness amongst the population. That’s the big reason we have been speaking out across the state.”

Jacobs believes it will take a long time to solve the things he perceives as issues but, that it can be done.

“I have seen very successful education reform,” Jacobs said. “I think one of the things candidly that we are struggling with here in Iowa is we were so good for so long and my view is that we rested on our laurels and became complacent. And all the while we have seen a lot of other states pass us by in a fairly significant fashion.”

Staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 426, or at trushing@newtondailynews.com via email.

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