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Monday, October 17, 2005 | This is part one in a two-part series.
A new day has dawned for San Diego City Schools. The arrival of acclaimed education leader Carl Cohn as superintendent of the beleaguered district has brought hope and a sense of renewal to students, parents and teachers.
Indeed, when a unanimous school board announced the selection of Cohn on July 23, the news worked like a salve on an open wound, producing an extraordinarily positive effect on labor relations and creating unity within the education and business communities – more than two months before his actual start date.
Offering words of reassurance and reconciliation, Cohn spoke in a recent interview about his first days on the job, the direction he plans to take, his leadership style and his priorities. Speaking slowly and thoughtfully, the nationally recognized educator said his biggest surprise after taking the helm on Oct. 3 was the cumbersome bureaucracy he encountered.
“The school district generates a lot of paper,” he said. “The size of the board meeting agendas is on a par with Los Angeles, and that is very surprising to me and very shocking. As a newcomer and an observer, I look at something like that and wonder how anyone would figure out what is important.
“It seems to me that doing something to generate less paper and figure out what’s really important, what people really need to focus on, becomes part of what I need to do. I was under the assumption that most large urbans of the late ’80s and early ’90s went through all that and moved on.”
Cohn said another immediate priority is to modify the district’s organization chart so he can establish a closer, more direct connection with the schools. “I’m talking about the assistant superintendents who supervise the principals,” he said. “The table of organization that I was given had them reporting to a deputy. I think you want the people who supervise the schools to report directly to the superintendent.”
It’s important to make sure everyone at the district “pays attention to what they’re doing, what their needs are, and looks at what it is that they’re saying they need to get from the rest of us in order to really move student performance forward,” Cohn said. “When I first looked at the table of organization, those folks looked buried to me. So a fundamental shift that elevates [them] and makes them visible in the organization becomes very important.”
The union factor
“Morale is at an all-time low after the former superintendent,” said Terry Pesta, president of the San Diego Education Association, the 8,300-member SDCS teachers’ union.
To repair the damage and regain trust, Cohn said he plans to listen and give people access. “This process for me started with my being invited to the teachers’ union’s annual fall retreat in Palm Springs in September,” he said. “I was their keynote speaker that weekend. [This] sends messages, messages about the future, about building a relationship.”
Starting as a high school history teacher in 1969, Cohn served as the superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, the third largest school district in California, from 1992 to 2002, making his 10-year tenure the longest of any large urban school district superintendent in the country.
LBUSD was named the 2003-2004 national winner of the prestigious $500,000 Broad Prize for Urban Education, which recognizes America’s best urban school system for increasing student achievement.
Cohn’s relationship with teachers’ unions remained positive during his years at Long Beach, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by local labor leaders.
“He’s a good choice,” Pesta said. “From what I understand, he has had a good relationship with labor. He is collaborative, a consensus-builder.”
Pesta said he knows there will be disagreements. “But we want to work through them. We want to build a strong relationship.”
But Cohn is not convinced of the validity of the argument. “I’m skeptical about the notion that automatically forcing more experienced people into schools is the way to go,” he said. “We’ve been hearing that as a single answer for years. I think it’s unfair to constantly blame the union.”
Cohn believes that teachers gravitate toward schools that have strong leadership and administrative support, regardless of the affluence of the community in which they work – a view shared by the unions.
When he worked in Long Beach, Cohn said he studied whether students bused from poor neighborhoods to affluent schools did better in school, under more experienced teachers.
“Everybody [said] if we just transfer more experienced people to these [low-performing] schools, a thousand flowers would bloom in terms of student achievement. So I said, ‘We bus 18,000 to 20,000 kids, poor kids of color, from neighborhoods where they live, to where they are in fact exposed to teachers in more suburban parts of town, teachers with these experience levels that everybody’s telling us is so important. Let’s do our own little study and let’s see if there’s any value added for the poor kids of color by merely being exposed to these experienced teachers.’ You know what our research revealed? That there wasn’t.”
Cohn said there are a number of SDCS schools in poor neighborhoods with high numbers of underserved students and low teacher turnover. It’s important to meet with those leaders and teachers and discuss why they choose to stay, “and then to build policies and craft agreements around that,” he said.
“Most union contracts have some sort of transfer policies that sometimes can get in the way of getting you what you need in order to move a school forward,” he acknowledged. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a large urban in California or around the country that didn’t have some sort of tough provisions.”
But Cohn says these are not issues that haven’t been faced in other places. In Long Beach, he said the union and management accepted memorandums of understanding that “allowed certain provisions to be set aside in order to advance the educational mission of the school district.”
Charter schools and the Blueprint
Although Cohn is not opposed to charters, he said he does not see this avenue as the only solution to under-achievement.
“If you asked people in Long Beach, they’d say Carl Cohn was charter-friendly,” he said. “But the amount of takers in Long Beach was miniscule. Here, when you have a higher percentage of kids in charter schools than Los Angeles, it raises huge questions about the extent to which you’re getting enough deregulation and innovation in the schools.”
He said people at Gompers seemed to be excited about school uniforms, a college-going culture, higher behavior standards, teachers who wanted to be there from the start of the school year and having a full staff.
“I would argue that you ought to be able to get that even at a regular school,” Cohn said. “What’s wrong with the organization that it can’t provide that? At Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, you had all of those same things including uniforms at the high school level and a 2.0 [grade point average] requirement to stay in the school, which a lot of people said you can’t do at a public school. But it wasn’t a charter.
“And we had a single gender middle school that wasn’t a charter … So what I don’t really get here is why charters seem to be the single method through which people get deregulation and innovation. It’s not that I’m against charters. I’m just saying that there ought to be a way for us to be a better provider of schools. Why can’t we do a better job of giving folks what they want?”
Cohn said there was nothing wrong with Bersin’s school reform plan called the Blueprint for Student Success, with its focus on early literacy, powerful professional development, using data to assess student performance, developing intervention strategies, getting extra help to struggling students and extending their learning time.
“To the extent that the Blueprint includes those big ideas – and most urban districts that are getting better have versions of those kinds of packages in their arsenal – I will continue with those big ideas,” he said.
“Having said that, however, for me the whole ball game is implementation and how you go about it. No one’s going to argue with early literacy, and no one’s going to argue with the big school reform ideas in the Blueprint. But I’m about bringing people in, I’m about inclusion, I’m about making sure everybody has a seat at the table as we move forward.”
Part Two: Carl Cohn’s thoughts about the school board, the state and federal accountability systems, his doubts and more on his approach for student success.
Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at