In Memoriam: ISA Cofounder Gerry Leeds (1922 – 2014)
By Abner Oakes
ISA's Director of Outreach
The Institute for Student Achievement is sad to report the passing of Gerard “Gerry” Leeds, who cofounded ISA with his wife, Lilo, in 1990. A visionary businessman, Gerry devoted his post-business life to improving educational opportunities for those most at-risk.
Born in 1922, Gerry attended a high school in Hamburg, Germany that specialized in science and engineering. He came to the United States in 1939 as a refugee from Nazi Germany and often said that he arrived with nothing except an education. For that reason, he spent most of his life working to ensure that every child had access to a quality education.
In 1971, Gerry and Lilo launched CMP Media, Inc. and turned it into a leader in providing information and internet services for high-tech industries. The company was well-known for its socially responsible policies, especially for its pioneering onsite day care center. In 1988, Gerry and Lilo turned the management of the company over to their sons and turned their attention to giving back to the country that had been very good to them, principally by working to improve the education of children at risk of failure.
In 1990, the couple launched the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA), which partners with schools and districts to transform public high schools so that students who are traditionally underserved and underperforming graduate prepared for success in college. In a 1998 New York Times article, Gerry explains his rationale for launching ISA:
When these children graduate from college, they’ll be making $30,000 to $40,000 a year. They’ll average paying $10,000 a year in taxes. When they graduate from college, in two years they’ll have paid society back in taxes. After that, society gets its money back every two years for the working life of each person. That’s a pretty remarkable payoff on an investment. … That does not say anything about the money saved in the costs from jail and the number of people on welfare. All the hospital costs and the other costs of violence. It’s a tremendously powerful economic thing. The most exciting part of all this is, it works.
Studies show that ISA’s largely African American and Latino student population has a four-year cohort graduation rate of nearly 80 percent—higher than the national high school graduation rates for African American students (69 percent) and Latino students (73 percent). And after four years in college, 81 percent of ISA students have either graduated or are still enrolled. To date, ISA has served over 70,000 students, providing them a pathway to high school success and college readiness.
In an effort to reach more at-risk students nationwide, Gerry and Lilo founded the Alliance for Excellent Education in 2001 and charged it with making an excellent education the right of every young person in the United States and ensuring that this right becomes national policy. Specifically, the Alliance was to focus on America’s most at-risk secondary students—those in the lowest achievement quartile—who are most likely to leave school without a high school diploma or graduate unprepared for a productive future. At the time, few, if any, national policy organizations were focused on middle and high school students.
As the founder of multiple companies, Gerry’s advice and insight were invaluable in getting the Alliance up and running. Working with then-president Susan Frost, Gerry was intimately involved in every aspect of the Alliance’s work. His experience with ISA helped to shape the “Framework for an Excellent Education for all Middle and High School Students” that the Alliance outlined in its 2002 report, Every Child a Graduate. He used his keen eye for design and decades of experience in the publishing world to help design the Alliance’s logo and frequently offered advice on the content and layout for this newsletter. Back then, the Alliance mailed print copies of Straight A’s to its subscribers. Usually about a week after an issue went out, the Alliance would receive a copy from Gerry with handwritten thoughts and suggestions on how to improve it. Many of those suggestions are still in place today.
Gerry and Lilo also created the Caroline and Sigmund Schott Foundation, which works on early childhood education and care, gender equity, and education financing issues, and are recipients of many civic awards, including Socially Responsible Entrepreneurs of the Year, the Long Island Association Humanitarian Award, and Outstanding Philanthropists of the year for the Long Island chapter of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives. They were cited by Newsday in its report on “100 Who Shaped a Century,” and were among the ten honorees selected by WCBS-TV for recognition in its annual “Fulfilling the Dream” celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ultimately, however, Gerry Leeds’s legacy is not the companies he created, but the lives he touched. Today, millions of individuals nationwide are better off because of him. They attended schools he helped fund and thrived under policies he championed. The luckiest of us had the honor to work with him and see his passion for education firsthand.
“There are a lot of worthwhile causes to give money to: the church, the hospitals, the museums,” Gerry told the New York Times. “We think education is primary. Education can change the world. We support all kinds of things in a responsible way. But we’re reserving the substance of what we’re able to do for education.”
Thanks to Jason Amos and our colleagues at the Alliance for Excellent Education for permission to share their memorial here.