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Monday, July 25, 2005 | There was something about the laughter that rippled through the crowd of teachers, parents, activists and journalists gathered Saturday at the Eugene Brucker Education Center that spoke volumes about how the choice of 59-year-old Carl Cohn to be San Diego’s new superintendent of city schools will be viewed. It was, in many ways, the laughter of relief, of escaping tension.
Cohn, a former superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, replaces Alan Bersin, a controversial figure who left the district on June 30 and now serves as California’s education secretary, answering directly to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
LBUSD was the first public school system in the U.S. to require school uniforms for students in grades K-8, a controversial decision that made national headlines in 1994. As a result, experts say school fighting was cut in half, suspensions were reduced by one-third and general criminal activity was lowered throughout the city in both rich and poor neighborhoods.
The district was one of the first to end social promotion and to make summer school mandatory for third-graders reading below their grade level, according to the district’s Web site. LBUSD also converted a public middle school from co-educational classes to separate-sex classes for boys and girls, which supporters say reduced distractions and produced higher scholastic performance.
In addition, Cohn is credited with improving student achievement across the board through a results-oriented approach to teaching that consolidated curriculum, instruction and professional development, as well as emphasized teacher training and peer coaching.
“He raised student achievement fairly dramatically and is very well-respected in California,” said Ron Ottinger, former trustee and president of the San Diego Unified School District. “He had good relations with the teacher’s union and is a heck of a good manager.”
LBUSD was recently named the 2003-2004 national winner of the $500,000 Broad Prize for Urban Education, which recognizes America’s best urban school system for increasing student achievement. Cohn said, however, that he is aware of the need to tailor his work in San Diego to the district’s particular needs.
“My approach,” he said, “is to take a deep breath, to listen carefully and then to find out what’s really going to work in San Diego, rather than bringing a so-called bag of tricks from another place and then just trying to apply it.”
Cohn was chosen unanimously by the five-member SDUSD school board, after a selection and interview process that attracted dozens of eligible candidates. “We had many, many well-qualified applicants,” said trustee Katherine Nakamura. “It was almost an embarrassment of riches.”
Trustee Mitz Lee had nothing but praise for the new superintendent. “I’m so delighted,” she said, grinning broadly, “this is good for San Diego.” Lee added that the selection process not only allowed the trustees to really learn about the candidates, but also brought them closer together as a group.
Roxanne Wheeler and Heather Poland, both teachers in San Diego, were watching the announcement. They said they would reserve judgment about Cohn, but said he seemed like a good communicator. Poland expressed some concern about balanced literacy programs, an element of education she said was vital and that Cohn has previously spoken out against.
“I would hope that he continues to allow teachers to use readers’ and writers’ workshops,” said Poland. “It seems like he supports more scripted programs, which don’t work.”
Wheeler said the defining factor in Cohn’s leadership will be his communication with teachers at a grassroots level. “I would like for him to be a leader who works with the staff,” she said. “… who comes to the teachers and says ‘what do you think is working? What do you think isn’t working?’ Because superintendents are far-removed from the classroom.”
Cohn holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. John’s College in Camarillo, Calif., a master’s degree in counseling from Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and a doctorate in urban and educational policy and planning from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is married to Kathy and has two children, Meryl and Tyler. The new superintendent will be paid $250,000 annually. His contract begins on Oct. 3.
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