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Tuesday, October 18, 2005 | This is part two in a two-part series.
In the three years since he left the Long Beach Unified School District, Carl Cohn has stayed involved in education – working with numerous school boards, coaching superintendents across the country, serving on education foundations and boards, consulting and teaching.
He said he chose to re-enter K-12 education and apply for the SDCS superintendency for a number of reasons. “I’ve learned a lot in the three years since I’ve left Long Beach,” he said. “So, in addition to whatever good stuff I might be bringing from Long Beach, there’s a whole host of other stuff, too.”
There was a lingering doubt, he said, about his ability to make a difference. “You always wonder,” he said. “Whatever success you had, was it because you were born and raised in Long Beach, well-known, knew the politics, the lay of the land? Or are these skills transportable? Could you take it to a community where you aren’t known, where you don’t have a track record?
“Working with the board, working with the union – these skills you could bring to a new place and have success. And then this other piece. Have you learned more in the intervening three years, and could [you] actually get it right, better, the second time?”
Remarking on the similarities and differences between San Diego and Long Beach, Cohn said the demographics are comparable and both districts suffer from declining enrollment.
However, he cited property and facilities issues as a major difference. “[These] are hugely contentious, and they were not in Long Beach,” he said. “So that’s something that jumps off the page.
“[Also], this community has more individuals engaged in philanthropy certainly than Long Beach did. My hat is off to Sol Price for the City Heights collaborative and what’s going on there. The 6-to-6 program, we did not have anything like 6-to-6 in Long Beach. And then you’ve got Balboa Park; you have these wonderful museums and programs. So all that’s just a huge plus that I think you can build on.”
Despite the many similarities between the two districts, Cohn said he will not automatically apply the same ideas today that he used before. “It’s a process of listening and learning and gaining buy-in, too,” he said. “There’s a process of bringing people in, sitting down and talking. And then if there is something from Long Beach that makes sense, certainly.”
The school board
He is married, has two children and is renting a house in Ocean Beach. Although Ocean Beach may be a temporary place of residence, he said he is looking forward to understanding why people smile when he tells them where he lives.
Cohn’s contract with SDCS runs from Oct. 3, 2005 to June 30, 2009. He is being paid $250,000 annually (Alan Bersin was paid $189,000 annually), has the use of an automobile, and was given a $6,000 relocation payment. The district serves 136,000 students in grades K-12 and has 200 educational facilities and more than 14,500 employees.
After buying out Bersin’s contract one year early, the five-member school board, in a surprising show of unity, selected Cohn unanimously after an interview process that attracted dozens of eligible candidates. Trustee Katherine Nakamura called the many well-qualified applicants “an embarrassment of riches.”
Cohn said he likes this school board and finds it representative of the community. “I’ve probably worked with a dozen urban school boards in this past year,” he said. “So I sort of have a big picture, national view of school boards.
“I really like the governance structure in San Diego. If you look at urban school boards across the country and the way boards are elected, San Diego has an outstanding structure. You nominate people from an area by primary, and then in the general election they run district-wide, which in my judgment reminds them about the importance of all schools getting better.
“I’ve used the term ‘squirrelly’ to affectionately describe some of their activities. But when you consider that I’ve worked with 12 or so urban school boards, I would not put them in the category of some of the other places that I’ve been exposed to, where working with the board members you could predict that things would be chaotic and dysfunctional.”
Cohn explains. “Sometimes there is this phenomenon of a board being on its best behavior during a search process, and then once you sign then everybody reverts back to various levels of dysfunction,” he said. “I trust these folks. While it is there and while it is memorialized, I would be really shocked and surprised if I ever invoked anything along those lines. It was more sort of a small victory for micro-managed superintendents everywhere. And the media picks up on stuff like that and kind of makes a bigger deal out of it than it really is.”
Board members themselves appear almost as relieved as Cohn to have such a clause in writing. “As a collective they may well be relieved and it may help those who are in a leadership role on the board – the president and the vice president – say to others to remember the contract provision,” he said.
Cohn doesn’t want to see board members call a high school principal and ask him or her to poll other high school principals about particular issues, for example. “It’s those kinds of things which you want to remind people [that] there’s staff here that’s really supposed to be doing all of that,” he said.
Describing the direction he would like to see the board take, Cohn said, “Starting this Monday as we initiate our quarterly board workshops, I think hopefully you’ll see an even better coming-together and a much more powerful focus on the important role of what some of us who do a lot of this work are calling reform governance – what reform governance really looks like and how a board hones in on the really big-ticket policy initiatives that they need to be all about rather than spending a lot of time discussing routine policies and minor operational aspects of the district. [This would set] the board on a course toward joining those urban boards across the country that have really been able to sustain gains in student achievement for a long period of time.”
With all the attention he is receiving, and with so many hopes pinned to his success, there can be pressure to succeed and to make progress quickly. But Cohn, deliberating quietly for a moment, dismissed the notion, saying, “I don’t feel any pressure to perform fast.” He said everyone needs to be patient so that more people can be included in the process.
“I think the pressure ultimately will be on the team,” he said. “I’m not a hands-on, top-down superintendent. If I were, there might be more pressure on me. I typically put a team in place and then that team over time is going to get the right results.”
Testing and accountability systems
“There’s enough about this that we don’t yet know in terms of testing and student achievement,” he said. “But I’m not much on the notion that Sacramento and Washington have a lot of answers for us. So while these accountability systems are there, they’re part of a law and clearly you have to deal with them, I’m not much on [the idea that] you do everything in order to get a good Sacramento or Washington outcome.
“There’s value in what we do here … Anybody who listens very carefully to outstanding teachers knows that letting Sacramento and Washington dictate how you’re seen as an organization may not be the right way to go.”
Cohn praised Gino Flores, the district’s new deputy who worked at Long Beach and the state department of education, for knowing how to take accountability, a concept he said is often like nails on a chalkboard for classroom teachers, and make it teacher-friendly.
He said the penalties for not meeting achievement standards are over-stated and over-emphasized. “That’s why Gino’s here,” Cohn said. “As probably the emerging expert in the state on the API and AYP and Program Improvement, he’s going to be able to take all the hysteria out of that conversation.”
Although he acknowledged that state and federal assessments have pressured school districts to return to basics and concentrate more on learning and achievement, Cohn was skeptical of their overall value.
“What kind of expertise do [the state and the federal government] have at really improving schools?” he said. “The notion that the state has some reservoir of people who know how to fix schools or fix districts is complete nonsense … So when we look at Sacramento and Washington and ultimate sanctions, where are these people? Are they living on another planet?”
A distinguished man of national stature with a calm demeanor and quiet determination, Cohn offers a vision for San Diego that is both substantive and symbolic. It is focused, inclusive and innovative, embracing a range of ideas that puts students front and center.
One is Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary.
Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at