Cousin's control soothes schools

Interim superintendent pegged by staff as person to rejuvenate confidence

`There's a sense of relief'

Hands-on style a reason board wants him to stay

April 11, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

By 10 a.m., Sydney L. Cousin was on his third school visit, this time arriving unannounced and uninvited at Elkridge Landing Middle School, where the interim superintendent took the staff by surprise.

"It's not a `gotcha' sort of thing," said Cousin, who made the trips regularly when he was the district's deputy superintendent before retiring last summer.

Cousin doesn't make appointments on these weekly rounds. He just shows up, in part because he doesn't want anything special done for him, but also as a reminder to staff that he is likely to pop in again.

That hands-on style is a big part of why Cousin was invited back to Howard for a four-month stint, beginning March 1.

After the tumult caused by grade-changing scandals and the forced resignation of former Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, the school board turned to Cousin to restore calm and stability to the 47,000-student school system - a goal many say he is quickly achieving.

School board members are seeking to extend Cousin's temporary status beyond June, although that effort hit a roadblock last week.

"There's a sense of relief that [Cousin] is here. [Staff members] just seem to feel safe now, and that they can move forward," said Courtney Watson, the school board chairwoman.

Watson got her first confirmation that Cousin was a good choice early last month during a professional-development seminar.

"Staff gave him a standing ovation," Watson said. "We really knew at that moment that he could do what it was that we need him to do: get the confidence back and lead [the system] forward."

While Howard is ranked at the top of Maryland schools academically, it has been struggling professionally as educators deal with aftershocks of the recent scandals.

"The constant focus on different personnel issues in the past four to five months has been unsettling," said Assistant Superintendent Robert Glascock. "With [Cousin's] presence, it's now much more calming and reassuring. "

But how long Cousin, 58, will be in Howard is unclear, causing concern for those looking to him for continuity.

Last week, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick denied a contract extension that would have allowed Cousin to remain in his interim position through June 2005. He is slated to stay through the end of O'Rourke's contract: June 30.

Grasmick said she will revisit the extension request, and is likely to approve it, after the school board makes a good-faith effort to find a permanent four-year replacement, which the board has said could take a year.

And while Cousin has expressed interest in the full-time slot, he will not commit to it until he has had time to test the waters, which has not been easy.

Staff shortages left by O'Rourke have meant Cousin and others have had to pick up the slack, leaving little time to concentrate on leadership.

"I'm still doing some of the things I did in previous positions," he said. "I find myself - as one person described it - with things being delegated up to me."

Cousin, who lives in Ellicott City, spent 16 years as a Howard schools administrator in charge of various departments, including construction, finance and operations. He helped develop much of what is in place now, including more than two dozen schools and a well-regarded plan to raise student achievement.

"His knowledge and expertise helps to reassure us that we will be OK," said Glascock, who is pleased that Cousin's goals are in line with those in place. "We don't have to undo [our efforts] and refocus."

But Cousin does have a few new things he would like to tackle - namely, restoring trust in his office.

Surveys and anecdotal comments have shown that teachers are wary of the school system's leadership, and Cousin plans to turn that around, in part by visiting all schools by the end of the month to pass on a message: We're here to help you.

"We want to deliver to schools those things they need to be successful to raise achievement of all students," he said.

While Cousin acknowledges the proclamation may sound a little "Pollyannaish," he said it is a truth of which people need to be reminded.

"Sometimes people lose focus of why they're there," Cousin said. "We want to keep people focused on their mission."

At Elkridge Landing a week ago, he trailed after Principal Tom Saunders, who took Cousin on a tour, ducking in and out of classrooms to introduce the new superintendent.

"This is my boss," Saunders said to a group of seventh-graders, who looked puzzled - principals have bosses?

Saunders said the winter has been a rough one for the system, filled with discontent and discomfort.

"People I knew and respected were being accused of things, and that was uncomfortable," he said, adding that Cousin's homecoming was welcome: "Sydney's claim to fame is relationships."

The decision to return to Howard was not easy for Cousin. He knew the school system was struggling, and he would have to quit a new job - as associate superintendent and chief of facilities management in the District of Columbia schools - to come back.

But in the end, he could not turn the offer or the challenge down - even though it is a far cry from his preferred retirement plan - being a librarian.

"The perfect job for me would be to be an archivist in a university," he said. "I like books, I like old books in particular."

He finds medieval history fascinating, chiefly how after thousands of years of cultural success, it could all collapse and fall, only to be rebuilt again - a grand-scale version of what has been happening personnel-wise in Howard.

Cousin, it seems, is charged with jump-starting the school system's renaissance.

"It's not going to be an easy job for anybody to do," Saunders said. "It's nice to know someone you know and trust is doing it."

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