Jeffrey Cohen returns to lead Catapult

Jeffrey Cohen returned to Catapult, an outsourcing company for schools, on Oct. 2. He last ran the company in 2007, before leaving to join Sylvan Learning.

Deja vu all over again? Maybe, for Jeffrey Cohen, 49, now taking his second turn as chief executive of the Camden-based Catapult Learning Inc., which school districts and private schools hire to provide teachers and other educational support staff who specialize in educating students at risk of dropping out or who have emotional or learning difficulties.

The last time Cohen ran the company, then a division of another firm, he sold the business to JMI Equity and the Carlyle Group, before leaving to run Sylvan Learning.

On Oct. 2, Cohen came back to lead a larger firm, one that grew considerably in July when it acquired Specialized Education Services Inc. (SESI) in Yardley.

"It's exciting, but it's also an odd feeling because, on one hand you think, well, what's the next move in your career?" Cohen said.

As it turned out, he said, "the next move is to go back to something you've already done. But, when you look at what Catapult is today - especially with the SESI merger - it's very different."

You told me that what convinced you to return was Catapult's services to Title I kids, students from low-income families.

 

I thought and I still think - and this is why I'm excited to be back here - that the public-private partnership, if done right, is really powerful in driving student outcomes. Our public schools today have enormous challenges and there's a realization now that the private sector can play an incredibly important role in helping the schools achieve their goals with students.

What about the criticism that for-profit firms must make a profit and can't put as much into services?

 

I would submit to you that if a lot of nonprofits ran as for-profits, they'd be leaner, more efficient. They'd be more productive, they'd make better talent decisions; they might run better operations, even if they weren't profiting the profit, so to speak. For-profit is truly just a tax status. We're a tax payer. Nonprofits aren't.

But don't investors expect to pocket a profit?

 

They don't take what's left over of the revenue generated and put in their pockets - no, no, no! That money gets reinvested into the company and over time, if the company grows, then it gets sold and that profit is theirs, not the money that the school districts are paying the company.

What about accountability? It seems that it takes a long time for charter schools that aren't performing - for-profit or nonprofit - to be sold.

 

But [ours] aren't evergreen contracts. They aren't charter school contracts. You said when charter schools aren't doing well, they're hard to close. When was the last time that a public school that doesn't do well closed?

Good point.

 

That's why we're fully accountable. That's what keeps everybody here on their toes. We have a job to do. We have to get renewed. And how do we get renewed? Getting outcomes with students.

Catapult specializes in dealing with at-risk youth.

 

I believe strongly that poverty is too big to solve as a situation. You have to break it down. I believe this firmly, that's why I do this for a living: Education is the key. That's how you undermine poverty. Yes, we should have better neonatal care, community services, health care, job programs. But if we can educate our children and prepare them to move into the middle class, that's the answer.

You've often worked in companies with multiple locations. How do you assess how well those locations are aligned with headquarters?

 

I'll tell you something I learned at the U.S. Labor Department from the secretary of labor, Robert Reich. He had the pronoun test. He'd go into any workplace and talk to the workers. If they say they, talking about the company and management, that tells you something; if they said we, it tells you something, too.

What does it tell you?

 

If you have the team working as a team, from the CEO to anyone else in the company, then you're going to get the we because that person feels they can draw a clear link between their day in and day out [work] and how it relates to the broader mission of the company. When they say they, you have to question whether they have been given the clarity they deserve in terms of understanding how important their work is to the overall effort.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769@JaneVonBergen