Newman Distinguished Alumna 2013: Leslie Rosenthal Jacobs ’77


On the evening of March 21, 2013, Newman administrators, alumni, and community members gathered in the School’s Reynolds Ryan Art Gallery to honor Leslie Rosenthal Jacobs ’77, the 2013 Distinguished Alumna. A pioneer in the New Orleans educational community and an avid supporter of Newman, Leslie was nominated for the award by her fellow alumni and for her dedication to improving lives and the community through her efforts in the field of education.

Head of School T.J. Locke welcomed the audience to the gallery and spoke about Leslie as a trailblazer in education. “Leslie happens to excel in the field of education, one near and dear to my own heart. I have watched Leslie break down barrier after barrier in the realm of public education reform in New Orleans. Her accomplishments and what she has done to safeguard the future of our city is nothing short of remarkable,” he said. Locke touched on the significance of the event and the meaning of the Distinguished Alumna Award. “Newman’s excellence shines through when we celebrate each other,” he said, “when we come together as a community to recognize this extraordinary place and the extraordinary people it has a hand in producing.”

He then turned the microphone over to Leslie’s lifelong friend Sarah Usdin. She began by commenting on Leslie’s incredible vision, leadership, and work ethic. She called her “an architect of school reform in New Orleans.” She listed the ways that Leslie was an innovator in the field of Education. Leslie's introduction of high-stakes testing was way ahead of the rest of the nation, and Usdin called her a “paragon of education reform” with a national presence.

Stephen Rosenthal ’74, Leslie’s older brother and fellow Newman graduate, also had some kind words for the night’s honoree. He talked about what it was like to grow up with a younger sister who was determined to achieve success in everything that she believed in. She took that ambition into adulthood and applied it to her passion for education. He closed with a couple of quotations - one of them from John White, the state’s hard-driving superintendent of education. John said of Leslie,

“In my work throughout the cities of our country, I have never met a reformer so central to the vision and successes of her community as is Leslie. I really do believe that when the history books are written on education in our time — not just for New Orleans, not just for Louisiana, but for the United States in its entirety — Leslie will merit the chapter future generations will admire most.”

Gretchen Schmidt Dondis ’89, President of the Alumni Association Board, then presented the award to Leslie, and Leslie took the podium. Leslie began her acceptance speech with the story of how her journey began at Newman. Despite reading difficulties, she overcame her limitations and was grateful to those who helped her along the way. She mentioned four educators in particular that changed her life: Dr. Francis for teaching her how to write well enough to earn an A on her first paper as a freshman at Cornell; Dr. Collins for giving her the skills she uses today to analyze and distill student data; Mr. MacKenzie for “drilling beyond the what and the who” and teaching her to explore the world; and the School’s beloved Teddy Cotonio, who virtually built a debate program around one student’s desire to compete in forensics. She reminisced about how Newman believed in her – even when she didn’t believe in herself. She commended the School on its dedication to each student, and she uses that model when envisioning the types of schools she hopes to provide for all students in New Orleans and beyond.

Leslie has been dedicated to education reform for over 25 years. She served as an elected member of the New Orleans Parish School Board and was appointed by Governors Foster and Blanco to the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) before founding EducateNow!, a non-profit dedicated "to making the reform of New Orleans public schools effective and sustainable."

Leslie is considered the architect of Louisiana’s School Accountability system. She conceived of the idea of the Recovery School District (RSD), was instrumental in passing the constitutional amendment that created the RSD, and has been very involved in efforts to build successful schools in New Orleans post-Katrina.
The Brookings Institution recently released its latest Education Choice and Competition Index (ECC) and ranked the RSD #1 with the only A rating in the nation among 107 school districts. U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan has called New Orleans the most improved school district in the country, terming its progress "remarkable" and "stunning." Education reform in New Orleans is now serving as a model for other states.

The Distinguished Alumnus/a Award is given each year to graduates who have made significant contributions in their specific fields of endeavor and taken a vigorous civic leadership role, bringing honor to the School through their achievements, both professionally and in the community. This award is the highest honor Newman bestows on its alumni. Past recipients include businessman Benjamin Rosen ’50, actor Bryan Batt ’81, real estate developer Darryl Berger ’65, civic activist Diana Monroe Lewis ’55, philanthropists Walda ’54 and Sydney ’45 Besthoff, authors Walter Isaacson ’70 and Michael Lewis ’78, and humanitarian Dr. Scott Kellermann ’63. Last year’s recipient was Jay Lapeyre ’71.