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Tuesday, March 20, 2007 | In the new film “Freedom Writers,” actor Robert Wisdom portrays Carl Cohn as superintendent of Long Beach Unified School District. Cohn’s on-screen persona is a stoic authoritative-type who tells teacher Erin Gruwell, played by actress Hillary Swank, what the chain-of-command is in the district.
In a subsequent handwritten note and later in closed-door meetings with school administrators, he then lets her usurp that hierarchy to teach her troubled students in a way that flies in the face of district protocol.
Cookies with Carl
While it’s a bit part in the major motion film, Cohn sees it as a good illustration of how educators can be empowered by a system that is more about opportunity than conformity. Now, as superintendent for San Diego Unified School District, Cohn said he understands more than ever that one size does not fit all.
“How do you give someone like Ms. Gruwell the freedom to roll up her sleeves and really go to work with kids? That’s what I’m trying to accomplish: a fundamental shift away from ‘Normal Street has the answers,’ to: the answers are probably out there in the schools, and our job is to help facilitate that conversation,” said Cohn, referring to the Normal Street address of district headquarters.
Cohn was hired as superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District — the second largest district in California with nearly 132,000 students — in late-July 2005. He formally began his term as district superintendent on the first Monday of October 2005.
He came to San Diego with an enviable resume. With some 38 years in education, first as a U.S. history and western civilization teacher in the Compton Unified School District, Cohn’s 10-year tenure as Long Beach Unified superintendent made him America’s longest serving urban superintendent, and earned him the prestigious 2001 Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education.
Now, 18 months after he took the reins of one of San Diego’s largest and most powerful institutions, Cohn has faced down some of the most perpetually controversial issues in local education. The teachers union said he’s easier to work with than his predecessor. Complaints from parents have eased since Cohn divvied up the oversight of schools in his district.
And he has gotten just enough of a feel for the tensions surrounding charter schools in the district to decide he might not mind if another agency was responsible for them.
Cohn’s work to date is often measured against that of former San Diego Unified Superintendent Alan Bersin, who later served as the state’s secretary of education and recently accepted the top post on the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority board.
Bersin said he is a “great admirer” of Cohn, but declined the opportunity to weigh in on the job Cohn has done so far. “I’m a strong believer in, when you’re in, you’re in, but when you’re out, you’re out,” Bersin said.
San Diego Unified’s governing board has so far given Cohn high marks. This past October, the board issued a commendation for Cohn’s first year as superintendent, detailing 16 different areas of accomplishment. He was lauded for implementing a new organizational structure for the district, working with staff to better interpret student achievement data, and creating an ethics office and fraud-reporting hotline, among other feats.
“While this has been a very productive year, it is only the beginning of an important process,” the board wrote in its commendation.
The San Diego Education Association, the union that represents more than 8,000 San Diego Unified certificated, non-management staff, said the environment under Cohn is markedly better than it was under predecessor Bersin. Still, the union would like to see more implementation of Cohn’s stated initiatives.
“We’ve heard a lot of very positive messages about moving the district in a positive direction,” union President Camille Zombro said. “With that said, we have hit some bumps in the road, and haven’t yet seen the actions that line up with those words.”
As an example of those “bumps,” Zombro cited the recent debate over the district’s disclosure of questionable content on a MySpace webpage maintained by Challenger Middle School teacher Gerald Gapusan. The teacher’s privacy should have been protected, she said.
“The Challenger case was a test of this positive vibe, and when it was tested, it went really badly,” Zombro said.
The union gives Cohn credit for encouraging a collaborative environment. He has been a proponent of training on shared decision-making policies, which Zombro said Bersin worked to undermine. Yet the union is still not too sure about Cohn’s intentions.
“We have been asked to be at the table for a lot of discussions, but we don’t know that our input is really influencing the trajectory,” Zombro said.
Cohn said he recognizes that his role in the district is sometimes viewed with trepidation.
The system that he inherited was in no way broken, he said, but lacked the inclusiveness necessary to make district employees feel valued and respected.
“I was taken aback by the amount of healing that needed to take place. There was incredibly low employee morale,” Cohn said.
“I think one of the things that people sometimes worry about is, ‘Even though this superintendent is talking de-centralization, he’s got this secret top-down plan to impose his ideas on everyone.’ And I don’t,” he said.
Cohn said he’s tried to better understand the needs of the district by hosting “Cookies with Carl,” a forum where district staff can quiz him on any number of topics. He holds the sessions every six weeks at sites throughout the district.
“One of the things that I do well, that inoculates me, is that I define myself with teachers and parents. I’m not the type of person who sits back and waits for others to define who I am. That’s part of the reason I do ‘Cookies with Carl.’ I don’t want to leave it to others to profile me.”
Cohn doesn’t mind delegating authority. “I think a job like this could absolutely drive you crazy if you tried to micromanage people or keep everything within your control,” he said.
“The process is set up to empower people that know a lot more about how to really accelerate gains for students than I do,” he said. “It’s inconsistent with the prevailing notion that you hire some superhero that comes in on a white horse and tells everybody how we’re going to get things done.”
Cohn’s efforts to tap into the knowledge of those “who have been laboring in the vineyard,” as he puts it, have included the creation of a second tier of superintendents. Five area superintendents are overseeing the district’s many elementary and middle schools, while two administrators split responsibility for the district’s high schools. The idea is to make the district’s leadership more accessible to parents, teachers and other staff.
Since the area superintendents were appointed in July, Cohn said there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of parent complaints.
Carol Barry, who serves as area superintendent for the geographical cluster of schools known as Area 1, has been with San Diego Unified since 1981 as a teacher, vice principal and principal. Before her appointment as an area superintendent, she held a similar position known as an instructional leader. The title change means Barry oversees 29 schools instead of 19, but she said the reorganization makes more sense in terms of neighborhoods and feeder schools.
“For me, before, the schools were situated all over the city. Any work that I did at a school, I didn’t necessarily have the middle-school feeder to track progress,” Barry said. “Now, if I go to the O.B. parade, for instance, I’ll see the kids who go to the various schools I serve.
“It’s a tighter organization. I can get to three or four schools in a day. It gives me a chance to get a better sense of the pulse of the community.”
Barry said Cohn allows area superintendents room to figure out what works best for each school.
“He has given us a lot of latitude. I like that quite a bit,” she said. “Some of the problems that school districts have is treating all schools the same. If public education is going to compete, we need to really change up what we deliver.”
Chelsea Smith, area superintendent for the 27 schools in Area 2, said she was very happy as a principal in the Anaheim Union High School District, but the chance to work with Cohn was an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“It’s very hard to say no to Dr. Cohn,” said Smith, who studied under Cohn while earning her doctorate from University of Southern California. “I’m loving my job right now. I have the utmost belief in Dr. Cohn and in what he can do, or I wouldn’t be here.”
Smith has nothing but praise for Cohn’s leadership style, which she aspires to emulate. She even holds her own “Cookies with Chelsea” sessions to meet with parents and school staff.
“He’s a quiet leader. He will not claim fame on his own, which is, I think, that humbling part that allows him to command respect,” Smith said. “But first and foremost, he is an outstanding listener. Teachers will share that with you. It’s so different than before. They never felt that they were being heard by someone.”
While positive comments from parents and staff are nice, Cohn isn’t relying solely on anecdotal assessments to gauge the district’s strengths and weaknesses. He’s set about implementing the Baldridge National Quality Program — a government-supported best-practices initiative designed to assess business, health care and educational organizations in the areas of leadership, management, planning, customer focus and results.
San Diego Unified has faced declining enrollment for the past six years, and expects more of the same for the 2007-08 school year. At its Feb. 13 board meeting, the district forecast a fall 2007 enrollment of 129,767 students, down 1.6 percent from fall 2006’s 131,815 students.
The presence of respected private and charter schools in San Diego creates even more competition for students and funds, Cohn said.
“In Long Beach, the school district was the first choice for parents,” he said. “That isn’t always the case here.”
“The district is being forced to become more competitive,” he continued, “so it can’t sit back and say, ‘We’re a public bureaucracy and we’re always going to be here.’ No, we’re not always going to be here. Enrollment is declining. The more parents have more choices, the more there’s the very real possibility that they’re going to choose other things.”
The district is considering any number of options for improving its appeal, Cohn said. There have been conversations about implementing more kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, allowing students to bypass the sometimes-difficult middle school experience. Magnet schools are also a possibility, with global economy-focused immersion programs in languages such as Mandarin.
“I want this school system to be the first choice of parents in San Diego. If I can accomplish that, I will have been hugely successful,” Cohn said.
Dede Alpert represented the San Diego region in the state legislature from 1991 to 2004, distinguishing herself as one of the state’s most respected experts on public education. These days, she serves on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence and, closer to home, on the board of directors for Gompers Charter Middle School.
Alpert said she was pleased with Cohn’s selection as superintendent of San Diego Unified, having been a fan of his efforts in Long Beach. Her appraisal of his work in San Diego, so far, is mixed.
“I think he’s done a good job, given that he came in at a difficult time. He’s a different kind of leader than Alan Bersin — more of a consensus builder,” she said. “My only criticism: Mr. Bersin saw charters as an element of reform, and was supportive of charter conversions. I think that Dr. Cohn has a different viewpoint. He doesn’t have the same confidence in charter schools. Our relationship with the district has been more difficult.”
Alpert said she’d prefer if Cohn saw charters like Gompers “as another arm of the district,” and as a partner for district-wide improvements.
Cohn concedes that there has been a learning curve for him on charter schools. There was less emphasis on charters in Long Beach than there is in San Diego, he said. “Charters provide an alternative that I think is very diverse — some good, some in-between, and some awful,” he said.
To get a better handle on San Diego Unified’s 36 charter schools, Cohn appointed Kyo Yamashiro as director of the district’s Office of School Choice. Her duties include authorizing new public charter schools and reauthorizing existing ones. Cohn said the district’s responsibilities in authorizing charter schools is time-consuming and could be seen as a conflict of interest given that traditional public schools and charter public schools compete for the same pool of resources.
“Now, I want to be clear on this: I’m not speaking for the board. But if someone else wanted to be the authorizer, to take on the supervision of the charter school system in San Diego, I would not be adverse to that,” Cohn said.
A university, or even a county office, might be better suited to oversee public charter schools, he said.
Cohn said he’s still at the point in his tenure where much deliberation is taking place. He expects that in the pursuit of his initially stated goals, more goals will present themselves. He wants changes for the future of San Diego Unified to be determined by the district’s various stakeholders.
And while there will always be those who are resistant to change, Cohn said he suspects that everyone ultimately has the same objective: to better serve students.
“I believe that if you support people and show them how there is a way forward that creates a brighter future for a larger numbers of kids, I think they will get on board with it,” he said. “If they think it’s just change for the sake of change, they will push back.”
Jennifer McEntee is a San Diego-based freelance journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com.