Reaching Higher Iowa Announces Addition to Board of Directors Dec 5, 2016

Urbandale, IA – Today, Reaching Higher Iowa (RHI) announced that Tom Penaluna has been appointed to its Board of Directors. Tom is the founder and Chairman of CBE Companies, headquartered in Cedar Falls. He previously served as Chairman of the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance and Chamber and as a Waterloo City Council Member. Penaluna has been instrumental in founding and growth of the Leader Valley Council, an education and business partnership in the Cedar Valley.

Reaching Higher Iowa founder and President Mark Jacobs said “We are thrilled with the addition of Tom to our board. He is a well-respected business leader who has made a strong commitment to improving educational outcomes in Iowa. He will be an asset to our board and organization.”

The full slate of directors consists of statewide business and community leaders who are committed to improving educational outcomes for all of Iowa’s K-12 students. The Reaching Higher Iowa Board now includes:

  • - John Butler, Executive Chairman, Cottingham & Butler and past chair of Iowa Association of Business and Industry; Dubuque
  • - Allison Fleming, former Chair, Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and child advocate; Des Moines
  • - N. Brian Gentry, Senior Counsel, Consumer Lending and Corporate Regulatory Division, Wells Fargo and former member of the Iowa State Board of Education; Des Moines
  • - Kelli Grubbs, founder, Victory Enterprises, Inc. and Chair of Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce; Davenport
  • - Dan Houston, President and CEO, Principal Financial Group and member, Iowa Business Council; Des Moines
  • - Mark Jacobs, founder and President, Reaching Higher Iowa & retired CEO, Reliant Energy; West Des Moines
  • - Sheila Laing, Executive Vice President, Hy-Vee and former Chariton CSD board member; Chariton
  • - Ben McLean, President and CEO, Ruan Transportation and Vice Chair, Iowa Business Council; Des Moines
  • - Dave Miles, Chairman and principal owner, Miles Capital Inc. and former Chair of the Iowa Board of Regents; Dallas Center
  • - Tom Penaluna, Chairman of CBE Companies and past Chairman of the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance and Chamber; Cedar Falls
  • - Daryl Schraad, President of Kemin Animal Nutrition and Health- North America; Des Moines
  • - Connie Wimer, Chairwoman, Business Publications Corp.; Des Moines
  • - Charese Yanney, Managing Partner, Guarantee Roofing, Siding and Insulation Co. and past chair of Iowa Association of Business and Industry; Sioux City

About Reaching Higher Iowa

Reaching Higher Iowa is a 501(c)(3) organization that was founded in 2013. RHI is committed to improving the effectiveness of our educational system to provide opportunities for every child and family. Reaching Higher Iowa is focused on raising public awareness and advocating on four key areas of policy change: effectively measuring and reporting student progress data, providing access to high quality non-profit public charter schools, supporting educators with professional development at all levels, and attracting and retaining high quality people to the education field.


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Reaching Higher Iowa Supports Branstad's Line Item Veto May 27, 2016

Urbandale, IA – Reaching Higher Iowa applauds Governor Branstad for the decision to line item veto of Section 18 and Section 19, subsection 5, of Senate File 2323. Vetoing this portion of the bill will allow the Iowa Department of Education to move forward with plans for implementation of a new, aligned assessment by the 2017-18 academic year. Mr. Jacobs remarked "This is an important step forward in improving Iowa's K-12 public education system, and ensuring we are effectively measuring a student's progress towards becoming college or career ready by the time they graduate from high school."

Reaching Higher Iowa ( is a 501(c)(3) organization that was founded in 2013 by Mark Jacobs. It is committed to improving the effectiveness of our educational system to provide opportunities for every child and family. Reaching Higher Iowa works on a non-partisan basis and advocates for four key areas of policy change: developing accountability, providing access to high quality non-profit public charter schools, supporting educators with professional development at all levels, and attracting and retaining high quality teachers.


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K-12 education: It’s not all about funding January 1, 2016

Iowa has long been known for being a leader in public education. In fact, the back of the Iowa quarter minted in 2004 depicts a schoolhouse and the phrase “Foundation in Education.” High quality public education is an important part of Iowa’s DNA.

I couldn’t help but reflect on this heritage while watching the school funding debate at the Capitol last year. Sadly, the outcome was a failure across the board — especially for our local school districts that had to contend with budget uncertainties, rather than focus on educating their students. The bigger issue is that our foundation in education is cracking, and funding alone will do little to change this fact.

We can begin to restore our foundation by facing an inconvenient truth: The increase in education funding levels has been mischaracterized as an investment in our children, when the majority of the dollars actually go towards pay raises for educators. I will be the first to say I support higher compensation levels for our educators. However, higher compensation levels alone have not translated into better educational outcomes for our children.

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More school choice is right for Iowa January 24, 2015

This week marks the fifth annual celebration of National School Choice Week. Across the nation, more than 11,000 events will promote and celebrate school choice, including 75 here in Iowa. But what does school choice really mean, and is it right for Iowans?...

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Iowa View: Closing the achievement gap in Iowa schools April 7, 2013

Every child, regardless of ZIP code, deserves a quality public school education. Unfortunately, for our state’s children growing up in low-income neighborhoods, far too often this is not the case. On average, children in low-income neighborhoods are two to two-and-a-half grade levels behind their peers in higher income areas by the time they get to eighth grade.

For our children and for our long-term prosperity in Iowa, we must do more.

Children who grow up in economically disadvantaged households face daunting challenges. We should actively embrace proven resources that can help address the education inequity. So it stands to reason that we should be doing everything possible to attract and keep the best teachers in Iowa’s classrooms.

That’s why our current situation is ironic.

Iowa has one of the most stringent alternative certification requirements for teachers in the nation. Consequently, a significant portion of our homegrown talent that has an interest in education cannot get a license to teach in Iowa. Instead of staying home and serving Iowa, they have to leave to teach in classrooms elsewhere. Moreover, it’s very difficult for our local communities to build partnerships with innovative organizations like Teach for America, Troops for Teachers and the New Teacher Project.

Hannah Olson is just one example of a teacher that Iowa children are missing out on.

Hannah grew up in Burlington and graduated in the top 5 percent of her class from the University of Iowa. She joined Teach for America and taught in the Mississippi Delta for two years. Hannah’s students showed dramatic proficiency gains in geometry.

Hannah completed a two-year program to earn a teaching license in Arkansas and is enrolled in a master’s program to gain full certification in New York. Today she teaches eighth grade math in Brooklyn, N.Y., for Achievement First, a high performing network of nonprofit, K-12 college preparatory charter schools.

Achievement First has a mission of closing the achievement gap for all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. Hannah would like to return home to Iowa and teach, but sadly she faces a steep uphill climb to get a teaching license in her home state.

What a shame. We sure could use her here.

We must open more pathways to becoming a teacher in Iowa, not erect more barriers to keep talented teachers out of our classrooms. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

The education reform bill passed by the Iowa Senate has a provision that would require any future changes to the alternative certification process to return to the Legislature for approval. If passed, this provision would subject teacher certifications to the political whims of the Legislature and special interest groups could affect them.

The result? It would be next to impossible for us to keep great teachers like Hannah Olson in Iowa and for our local school districts to have the option to partner with organizations like Teach for America.

It is a travesty that some of our state’s leaders are working to make it even more challenging for diverse, outstanding educators to reach our children who are the most in need. Our children will pay the price while we continue to miss out on great teachers and let our next generation of the best and brightest go to other states.

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Accountability and collaboration missing from education reforms February 15, 2013

As a child in Iowa, I had the gift of a great public school education. Knowing that Iowa had the top public schools in the country gave me the confidence to go out and explore the world. I’m proud to come from a family of educators spanning several generations; currently, my sister and two nieces teach in Iowa public schools. As a result, I’m a guy who’s very passionate about public schools. Right now, I’m also very concerned. We have some excellent schools in Iowa. But after taking a close look at public education as a whole in our state, I see how much we’ve fallen behind, and that really saddens me.

It’s true that Iowa still has one of the highest graduation rates in the country, and our fourth and eighth graders rank slightly above average in math and reading on national standardized testing. However, dig deeper and the facts are troubling. When you compare Iowa students’ test scores against students with similar demographics, we rank 38th in eighth grade math and 45th in eighth grade reading. The bottom line is that on average Iowa is actually delivering bottom quartile results. Also deeply concerning are ACT preparedness numbers—less than half of our children are college-ready in at least three core subjects. Twenty percent of our high school graduates are not college-ready in any subject.

This is a huge disservice to our children. Jobs increasingly require more training and education, and without a bachelor or associates degree or vocational school, opportunities will be very limited; as will lifetime earning potential. Moreover, a well-trained, well-educated work force is vital for the growth of our state.

We need to make sure that all of Iowa’s children graduate from high school college- or career-ready. The hard truth is that this will require real transformation and years to achieve it. Taking the right first steps is critical, and so is the way we go about reform.

Our first step must be to build accountability into Iowa’s education system – it is missing today. Until we develop accountability, we’re not likely to make much progress with other actions.

The cornerstone of any accountability model is the ability to periodically measure progress towards a goal—in this case getting our children college- or career-ready. But we’re not doing that. Our assessment tests only cover a small part of what we expect children to learn. Moreover, some districts give the tests in the fall, while others give them in January or the spring. With current tools, it is impossible for us to measure each student’s academic growth in each school year.

We need an assessment test that aligns with what we expect our children to learn. We also need to test each child at the end of each school year so that we know 1) how much they learned in that year and 2) whether or not they are on track to graduate college- or career-ready. That is something that each student, their parents, teachers, principals, and administrators deserve to know.

If a student is not making adequate progress, we can step in to get that child back on track. It would also allow us to identify high performing teachers and schools so that we could share best practices. The idea of setting a goal and then measuring progress is not exactly earth shattering, but the sad reality is we’re not doing it today, nor is it part of Governor Branstad’s current education reform plan.

How would we go about creating the type of measurement system we need? Involve the front line; involve our teachers—in a word, collaboration. Too often, education reform efforts are divisive. Teachers and their unions become targets. But teachers are not the problem. Teachers are the solution to the problem. Many education reforms don’t involve teachers, and that’s why they fail.

The bottom line is that education reform is about each child receiving a solid educational foundation and opportunities for a good, productive life. If we commit to doing right by each child, then over time, we’ll find that Iowa’s school system is once again among the best in the nation.

Mark Jacobs founded Reaching Higher Iowa to advocate for education reform. For six years, he was a board member and served a term as board chair of KIPP Houston Public Schools, which teaches over 9,500 economically disadvantaged students. Drawing from his experiences as a Fortune 500 CEO and high-level strategic and financial advisor, Mark is currently teaching a capstone business strategy class to graduating seniors at Iowa State University.

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