There’s a point in the unfinished film The Fire Within where Gary Jacobs takes center stage. It comes as a surprise, because the film is about a group of teenagers – 10 American Jews, 10 Israeli Jews and 10 Israeli Arabs – who go on a tour of Spain and Israel. While the trip is funded by the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs International Teen Leadership Institute (JITLI), the film is focused squarely on the kids.
When the group returns to Israel, Eyal, an Israeli boy, and Hiba, a Bedouin Arab, get into a heated exchange. Eyal tells Hiba it is absurd to consider yourself Palestinian; Palestine ceased to exist in 1948. Jacobs has kept a low profile on the trip but is compelled to say something now.
“The object of this program is not to convince the other people that you’re right and they’re wrong,” he tells the group, as the kids turn silent. “The object of this is to understand where they’re coming from so you understand what’s going on and they understand where you’re coming from.”
In this moment, all of the roles that Jacobs is known for come to the forefront: Jacobs the benefactor, Jacobs the leader, Jacobs the mediator.
Jacobs may be the most powerful man in San Diego’s Jewish community. He helmed the Jewish Community Center during its $15 million campaign to build a new La Jolla campus (helped in no small part by the generosity of his parents, Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife Joan). He is currently president of the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County, which raised $12 million last year. He is on the board of directors of Congregation Beth El, the first synagogue in La Jolla.
But his passion – and what may end up his most lasting legacy – is an institution little-known in the Jewish community. It’s called High Tech High, and its goal is nothing less than rewriting the rules of secondary education.
Getting High Tech High
What makes High Tech High (www.hightechhigh.org ) so unique? The founders throw around buzzwords like “personalization,” “real world immersion” and “common intellectual mission,” but the key difference between High Tech High and other high schools is one principle: trust.
At High Tech High, there are no bells or hall passes. Students at this public charter school do not spend the day wandering from lecture to lecture. A good chunk of their time is spent on team projects, and we’re not just talking paper maché dioramas; we’re talking an actual plane, a mini-hovercraft and robots. Students are trusted to work outside of class structure in the Great Room, a sea of 100 computers.
During their junior and senior years, students are required to spend two afternoons a week doing internships. Each student has his or her own website, where a résumé, personal statement and digital portfolio are kept. Students are even entrusted to keep the school’s network up and running.
If all this sounds antithetical to the high school you know and loathe, it’s supposed to be. High Tech High was founded by people who saw the traditional American high school as outdated and ineffective.
“The American high school hasn’t changed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which is what it’s modeled on,” says Gary Jacobs. “You bring some inputs in, run it through a factory situation and you get some outputs out of it. That’s not how most businesses operate these days.”
The school was founded to prepare students for the modern business world. The school day starts at 8:45 a.m. and ends at 3:45 p.m., opposed to the traditional 7 a.m.-2 p.m. day – which was great for kids working on a farm but is lousy for modern teenagers’ biological clocks. As in the corporate world, teamwork is an essential part of the curriculum; teachers team-teach and students do most of their projects together.
Everyday, businessmen come in for “power lunches” to talk with the kids about their industry. And of course there’s the labs, many of which are unheard of in public schools: an engineering lab, a physics lab, a biotech lab, a Cisco networking lab, a computer modeling lab and a video production lab.
There is no phys ed and only a handful of sports: boys’ and girls’ basketball, girls’ volleyball and club soccer. There is no cafeteria, only a bank of vending machines. The school offers one language, Spanish, because, really, is any other language as essential to learn?
The head of the school, Larry Rosenstock, is not only the principal, he’s the CEO. And any inventions the kids come up with at High Tech High are the intellectual property of High Tech High.
If all this sounds like it’s preparing students to be good corporate citizens, you’re about as right as you are wrong. Kids are discouraged from jumping right into the workforce. Every member of the upcoming graduating class is planning on going to college.
The arts program is remarkably strong for a vocationally oriented school. The ubiquitous art on the walls is professional quality. Some of the students’ work has even been displayed at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.
But at the same time, the business community heavily subsidizes the school. And it was the business community that first came up with the idea, which is where the Jacobs come in.
A life’s work
In many ways, founding High Tech High is a role Gary was born for.
When Gary was 9, his family left Boston so his father could be part of the fledgling computer science department at a new University of California campus in the eucalyptus groves of La Jolla. This was before Irwin made hundreds of millions at Qualcomm; when Irwin and Joan came in 1966, they packed Gary, his three younger brothers (including 5-month-old Jeff) and all their belongings in a used Ecoline van for the cross-country trip.
Even as a child, Gary was a leader. “He certainly set the standard of behavior for all his brothers,” says Joan. “He told me many years later that it was very important that he not do drugs, that he be a role model.”
In 1972, Irwin left his academic post to found the predecessor to Qualcomm, Linkabit Incorporated, which started as a satellite communications consulting business… to Gary’s dismay: “My goal growing up was to take his class at UCSD. I wanted to take his class while he was still teaching.” Even though there were few Jews in La Jolla at the time, Gary became vice president of the local chapter of AZA, a Jewish boys’ youth group. Judaism was central to the Jacobs’ lives; in the days before Congregation Beth El, the children of Jewish professors would gather at area homes for Sunday school. Gary’s bar mitzvah was held at his family’s house overlooking La Jolla Shores.
While in high school, Gary worked summers doing maintenance work at Linkabit. This would be a trend with the Jacobs boys: everyone worked for Linkabit or Qualcomm at one point or another, and all started low on the totem pole. Paul, head of the internet and wireless group, is now seen as Irwin’s heir apparent at Qualcomm.
Gary went to UCSD, where he dated a Southern Baptist. After graduating with a B.A. in management science in ’79, he decided he wanted to marry a Jewish woman. The logical place to look? His family’s synagogue, Congregation Beth El. “So when I called up the synagogue, I asked if they have a singles group. They said it’s a little older, so I said fine. I checked it out; the average age was about 50 and the movie they were watching was about Canada’s involvement in World War II. So I called them back and said, ‘What else do you have?’ So they said they had a list of names, but no one to make calls.”
Next thing you know, Gary was launching a Jewish singles group. It turned out to be the best decision of his life.
Jerri-Ann’s family took a similar, albeit lower profile, path to San Diego. She grew up in Brooklyn, where Jewish people were ubiquitous. Her family did not attend shul; if you can meet a Jew in gym class, why go to temple? In 1978, her father, an electrical engineer, was relocated to San Diego. When Gary started the singles group in 1982, Jerri-Ann was working in insurance during the day, going to school at night and playing softball on weekends.
“Jerri-Ann wasn’t on the [calling] list,” recalls Gary, “but her mother heard about it from my grandmother at shul one day, and convinced her to skip softball practice and come to this.”
The first event of the new group was an Israeli Independence Day celebration at Balboa Park. It was rough-housing at first sight. “He picked me up and carried me over his shoulder,” says Jerri-Ann. “I don’t know why!”
Over the course of several events, including a beach night at La Jolla Shores, Gary and Jerri-Ann grew closer. In 1983, they were married.
Immediately after college, Gary went to work at his dad’s company. He was at Linkabit (and later, Qualcomm) for two decades, first as a programmer, then as a software engineer, and from 1996 until his departure in 2000, as a senior educational specialist working with schools to improve their math and science studies. It was while he was serving this role that he was first turned on to High Tech High.
Since 1992, more than a hundred local businessmen and educators had been gathering every other month to discuss the state of modern education. Their shared conclusions? It was pretty poor. Gary joined the group when the Qualcomm representative couldn’t make a meeting.
“The Roundtable was very concerned about a lot of students not having a good math and science background out of high school,” says Ginger Hovenic, president and CEO of the Business Roundtable for Education. “They weren’t as prepared as the businesses wanted them to be.”
Gary started a subcommittee on solutions to the problem. Scanning around for a better model of secondary education, the committee’s collective eyes settled on Denmark. In Denmark, there are three kinds of high schools: college preparatory, vocational and a combined academic/vocational. They found that the kids best prepared for the modern workforce came from the hybrid school. Gary wanted to start a similar school in the States.
“After one meeting, Larry Rosenstock came to my office and asked, ‘What do you think the odds of the school are?’ and I said, ‘About 50-50. We have no staff, we have no principal, we have no site, we have no students and we have no money, but other than that, we’re doing pretty well.’
“He said, ‘I want to be principal.’
“I said, ‘Well now it’s about 90-10,'” recalls Gary. “There was a real match between the vision I had and the skills he had.”
So with Gary and Jerri-Ann’s money ($3 million to start) and Rosenstock’s experience, the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High was founded on January 1, 1999.
“There would not be a High Tech High without Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs, plain and simple,” explains Rosenstock. “The money is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but with Gary, it’s also the ideas and the strategizing.”
Once the plan got off the ground, the money and support seemed to flow in. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was so intrigued by the concept that it gave High Tech High $6.5 million to replicate itself in other cities – before the school even opened! Since then, the Gates Foundation has pledged another $5 million for additional High Tech campuses, and local corporate support has been enthusiastic. One wonders: did Gary’s family connections have anything to do with the school’s initial success?
“Well, it doesn’t hurt,” he laughs, “but I think now High Tech High has taken on a reputation of its own.”
Gary and Jerri-Ann have since given an additional $2.5 million to the school, but Gary’s contributions don’t stop there. Gary was instrumental in securing the building’s site in an old engineering lab at the Naval Center in Point Loma. Gary is at the school two to three times a week. He is chairman of the board and is leading the efforts to replicate the school in other cities. Already, there are replicas in Los Angeles, Oakland and New Bedford, Massachusetts.
“It’s his baby,” says Jerri-Ann. “He’s on the phone with them on the days he’s not there.”
But when your name’s on the school, shouldn’t the administrators fear the possibility of micromanagement? Rosenstock is insistent that is not the case: “He has not micromanaged one moment of anything,” he says. “That has not remotely become an issue yet and I don’t expect it ever will.”
Of course, when you keep the kind of schedule Gary does, it’s practically impossible to micromanage anything.
The cost of leadership
Since leaving Qualcomm in 2000, Gary has been nearly a full-time philanthropist. That’s one of the perks of owning millions of dollars in Qualcomm stock and selling some during the boom years.
He has two businesses: a real estate development company and the Lake Elsinore Storm, a single-A farm team of the San Diego Padres. But both businesses are secondary to his philanthropic and volunteer work.
Between his work at High Tech High, the UJF and the other numerous other boards he serves on (including the San Diego Symphony, the JCC, the UCSD Board of Overseers and more), he attends 10-15 meetings a week.
“This year is the first time he’s ever broken down and got a secretary,” says Jerri-Ann with obvious relief.
“And most of her time is spent trying to schedule me,” responds Gary. “She was trying to find a 2-hour block of time over the next month and I don’t think she could find one.”
Jerri-Ann too has her volunteer obligations. She is on the board of the Foundation to Advance Music Education, plays violin for the youth theater orchestra at the JCC and tutors math at her daughters’ school. But having four kids – ranging in age from 7 to 17 – makes excessive volunteering difficult. “I just can’t do everything,” says Jerri-Ann. “Two o’clock hits, that’s it. I have to start running around.”
Like their wealth, much of the Jacobs’ passion for giving was inherited from Gary’s parents. Gary’s parents have donated or pledged hundreds of millions to institutions as diverse as UCSD (home to the Jacobs School of Engineering), the San Diego Symphony and the Museum of Photographic Arts. Joan and Irwin’s names are ubiquitous among the top donors at nearly every major San Diego arts organization.
Gary and Jerri-Ann focus their giving on educational projects. When filtering through the slew of letters, phone calls and personal appeals for money, the Jacobs say they ask two questions: “How does whatever we get requested fit an educational model? And how much does what we give make a difference for that particular project?”
Unlike Gary’s parents, who have started a foundation to filter and disperse charitable appeals, Gary and Jerri-Ann deal with all the requests personally. That kind of hands-on involvement is a hallmark of their giving.
The Jacobs first became involved with the JCC when they sent their son Adam there for preschool. Gary started out as assistant editor of the preschool newspaper – hardly the most influential position at the J – then volunteered his way up to president. For 15 years, he played Moses in the preschool’s Passover play.
At the UJF, he not only works on long-term planning and policy issues, he helps broker problems among his constituents. “He’s really a good listener,” says Stephen Abramson, executive vice president of the UJF. “When there’s a difference of opinion, either between agencies or staff, he makes a reasoned judgment that all parties can be comfortable with.”
Says Rosenstock of his involvement at High Tech High: “I can’t remember a time that we said we need you that he hasn’t been here.”
Politics would seem the logical next step for a person so comfortable with high-profile positions. But Gary says no chance. “I’ve seen what they have to deal with,” he says, eyes rolling.
Gary is vague about his plans after his term at the UJF expires in 2004. The only thing he is certain about is working on replicating High Tech High in other cities.
It’s probably best he doesn’t bring up any future volunteer commitments. Jerri-Ann often feels swamped by the responsibilities of raising four children (including two teenagers) and is less comfortable with the couple’s high profile. “I told him he’s only allowed to be president of one place at one time,” she says.
During the screening of the preview to The Fire Within, held at the JCC last month, there was a telling contrast: while Gary was up on the screen, only Jerri-Ann made the screening, with Beth and Mara in tow. Gary was in Los Angeles at meetings for the UJF.
A potent reminder that behind every great man – and every great man’s ideas – is a hard-working, supportive woman.