Talbot Consulting and founder Leslie Talbot were recently featured in the latest issue of Testiphi, an online magazine devoted to social justice and change.  The article focuses on the groundbreaking work of Talbot Consulting and YouthBuild Newark in creating the Newark Leadership Academy, a school devote to re-engaging disengaged youth.   In addition, the article traces some of the key aspects of founder Leslie Talbot’s path that have combined to influence the direction of Talbot Consulting today.  Below is the full article, reprinted with the permission of Jarome James Jr. of Testiphi.com:

Developing Successful Re-engagement

Leslie Talbot spent her first three years at Stanford University as a music major. Although she never used her talents to make a living, a few years back she found herself calling on artistic ability, even if it was in a figurative sense, to help move an educational project forward.

Talbot, an educational consultant, and Robert Clark, who founded YouthBuild Newark, had embarked on the creation of a high school that would cater to the needs of students who had dropped out of high school. Identifying, finding and helping them finish their degrees were almost the easy parts of the job. It was the first time the district had attempted something like this. A recent influx of money from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made the plan possible, but the execution would still be challenging.

“We had to paint a picture for people,” Talbot said of the strategy she and Clark implemented. “The thing we kept coming back to was if we could design a school based on this population, the climate and culture would have to work. Once people understood the goal was to create a positive culture and climate; that helped. Part of our problem was rules and regulations typical of bureaucratic institutions.  This made it difficult for people to understand what we were trying to do. We knew starting this high school was going to be a challenge. There was a bunch of different stuff we didn’t know. Once we were able to identify the challenges we had to go after them one by one.”

Educational systems are notorious for the bloat and red tape created all in the name of teaching students. Talbot and Clark developed the Newark Leadership Academy (NLA) with the primary purpose of helping a segment of the population that rarely gets focused on, but accounts for a significant number of students every year. The school is a partnership among  Clark’s Youthbuild Newark project, the Newark School District and Newark Leadership Academy.  Youthbuild is a national program designed to “harness the intelligence and positive energy of low-income young people to rebuild their communities and their lives.” Clark, a Massachusetts native, became the first Youthbuild graduate to found and run his own project when he created his program in 2003.

According to a recent report, every day more than 7,000 students drop out of high school in the United States. This means each year, approximately 1.8 million young people ages 16-21 are neither enrolled in nor have completed a high school education. They are more likely to end up in jail, on public assistance or in some way negatively affecting the economy than their peers who graduate. The economic burden of each dropout is estimated at $258,240 and the social burden is calculated to be $755,900 over the course of their lifetime.

Setting aside the complications of determining real national figures, the task Talbot and Clark faced included having to reconfigure an entrenched infrastructure that took decades to build. Even with the support of superintendent Cami Anderson, navigating the labyrinth of district policies, teacher union contracts and other distractions proved to be a big challenge for them. Talbot, who began the project as a consultant for the Foundation for Newark’s Future, said they knew going in that they would be more negotiators than curriculum developers. The reasons students dropout varies widely. One student may be distracted by a dysfunctional school, another could be dealing with domestic violence in the home and a third could be homeless. These factors made them approach the school’s development differently than the creation of another type of academic institution.

“We said before we even started that we’re going to have to negotiate some things; a longer school day and other staff people to be involved,” Talbot, who received her master’s in sociology and education from Teachers  College, Columbia, said. “We needed folks that were trained in therapeutic care. We knew we needed more student service staff than we did instructional staff.  We wanted some flexibility on org (anizational) charters. The union and administrator dictate the personnel. We needed some flexibility there. As far as the resource allocation was concerned we required some flexibility. These were going to be students who were coming back to school from age 16 to 20. We’re going to have to solve those issues.

“We had to think about things like re-negotiating collective bargaining agreements and making sure it was age appropriate. It’s thinking about who you hire. Staff people who understand the population and are not afraid of the population, a staff that understands effective practices. It had to be a staff grounded in youth principles. It’s very important to me this idea of thinking critically and about a demonstrated ability to overcoming adversity. We looked for people who, no matter what, would find a solution. They had to be smart. The staffing people at these schools are critically important. Many of the students ended up there because they were with staff that couldn’t meet their needs.”

Even the interview process was unique and rigorous. Candidates went through a three hour session where they wrote two essays, created two lesson plans and taught a group of students. Once they completed the teaching, Talbot and Clark spoke with the students about them. Then, the candidate sat for a conversation with the evaluating committee. Talbot said they thought it was necessary to really see how committed a teacher was to the task. They were focused on avoiding the person who would get frustrated and want to leave, which would put the student right back in a situation of not trusting the educational process.

Newark Leadership academy students work on a community project

“The good thing is that it eliminates people who can’t work with the population,” Talbot, who is a former Director of Research and Evaluation for Teach for America, said. “It’s very difficult to find staff that demonstrates a capacity to say I won’t give up. I can figure out what to do. There’s a whole lot to figure out with this population. This student population is older. We had to focus on having age appropriate rules. With the exception of a few teachers, we only hired people who had experience with the population. Nearly half of the staff we hired was not educators. Instead, they had backgrounds grounded in youth development and previous positions in public/private agencies or juvenile justice.”

Figuring it out with a Secretary of State

Talbot was born in Texas, raised in Detroit and finished her high school years in the Los Angeles area. She was always a good student, but  not a nerd. She chose Stanford on a whim. A high school recruiter suggested she look at the school based on her academic record. Before that she had never heard of it. She said she visited the Palo Alto, CA campus and knew that it was the place she wanted to be. It helped that the school offered a scholarship.

Her career path took a turn in her third year. In addition to her music curriculum, Talbot took courses in political science. She believed she wanted to be a lawyer, but her college advisor set her on a different path.

“I interned thinking I wanted to be an attorney,” Talbot who works with school districts and charter schools around the country, said. “Condolezza Rice was my advisor from the second quarter of sophomore year to second quarter of third year. She asked, ‘how do you know you want to be a lawyer?’ She wrote a waiver to allow me to take a law school course. Halfway through the course I said I don’t want to be a lawyer. Over a series of meetings, we would meet on runs (jogging); she said I really think you like domestic policy. We’ll try to get you into Georgetown’s summer International Relations Program. That nailed it. I didn’t really care about international policy!  That same summer I interned for Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and fell in love with domestic policy. I returned to Stanford after that summer, became an alternative delegate for Jesse Jackson’s Presidential bid.  The next year I finished up my degree in public policy with a concentration in education policy.”

Talbot stays in touch with the former Secretary of State, exchanging emails and holiday cards. She said Rice changed her life. Talbot went to work as a teacher, but quickly found out she could not deal with the bureaucracy. She spent much of her early career in program assistant and associate positions at the National Research Council and the Council of Chief State School Officers where she conducted research and provided technical assistance to states and districts across the country.  When Talbot headed back to school to do her graduate work, she knew she wanted to stay connected to education.  This is how she ended up at Teach for America. It enabled her to take her passion for education and marry it to her fondness for policy. She did a stint as the Vice President of K12Connect, a consultancy that helped schools find the right personnel to fit their needs, before founding Talbot Consulting, an education management and consulting firm, seven years ago. It allows her to use all of the skills and training she acquired to build out institutions and help school districts determine their needs.

Designing and supporting schools that reengage disconnected youth is a growing segment of her business. School districts are just really waking up to the idea that they can change the way students see a path to graduation. Boston and Denver have really been out front in developing comprehensive programming to reengage young people, Talbot said.

Talbot said she has seen more activity around this particular population.  For example, America’s Promise Alliance, which was founded by Rice’s predecessor as Secretary of State, Colin Powell, created GradNation. That program’s goals are to have the graduation rate hit 90 percent by 2020 and that no district will have a less than 80 percent graduation rate.  Other organizations include Our Piece of the Pie in Connecticut, and SIATech in California. There are some other creative endeavors which have demonstrated capacity to serve off-track students, like the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, MN.  But these efforts still lack by comparison to other areas of concern in education. As time goes on, she said she believes schools like Newark Leadership Academy will become more common and that districts will put more effort into helping their students graduate.

“I think that there is slowly starting to be more focus on the challenges and needs of off-track students,” she said of the awareness of the issue. “There’s recently been an increase in the number of district and charter portfolios adding schools that serve over-age and under-credited students. Boston, Denver and Portland, Minneapolis, NYC, Newark, and Chicago have all been assertive in trying to address the needs of this population. Then you have charter authorizers, which include SUNY and those in California and Minnesota.”

Successful efforts are multi-layered with a real emphasis on meeting students where they need the most help. Districts like Washoe in Nevada (see related stories) have quietly gone about building infrastructure to help address their needs.

NLA has met with success, but it still is not perfect. Last year, it graduated 31 of 35 students who were eligible, an 89 percent graduation rate. The school is still dealing with the growing pains any new school experiences, but it has not faced any major setbacks in its second and now third year of existence. Despite that, Talbot said this is a time to push forward with more innovation to create more quality schools to meet the educational, social and emotional needs of this population.

“There are an increasing number of districts that are adding schools for disconnected and off-track students,” Talbot, who is a now a consultant for Newark Public Schools, said. “There’s not enough awareness of the problem, though. Unfortunately, people still think it’s a small problem.”


Leave a Reply