Cousin earns stellar marks

A year ago, Howard schools were mired in controversies. Since becoming superintendent, longtime administrator Sydney L. Cousin has helped restore calm with his hands-on leadership.

February 27, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Sydney L. Cousin didn't realize it at the time, but he sealed his fate 30 years ago when he haphazardly picked "school superintendent" as his future occupation during a graduate-school assignment.

"It turned out it happened that way, but it was never my aspiration to be a school superintendent," Cousin explained. "To be a leader, yes, but not necessarily a school superintendent."

As he completes his first year Tuesday as Howard County superintendent, Cousin is receiving stellar marks for his leadership and ability to restore calm and stability to the school system that had been rocked by turmoil 18 months ago.

"Obviously, the school system had gone through quite a bit of trauma in the preceding year, and Sydney - he was a known quantity," said Michael E. Hickey, the retired Howard County superintendent who hired Cousin in 1987 and now heads the Center for Leadership in Education at Towson University.

"People knew him and respected him and knew that he would be straight with them," said Hickey, who retired in 2000 after 16 years as superintendent. "I was confident that he would bring stability back to the school system in the shortest amount of time, and experience has [shown] that."

A year ago, the school system was dealing with the aftermath of numerous controversies: grade-changing scandals at Oakland Mills and Centennial high schools, false rape allegations at Mount Hebron High and the very public fallout between former Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and the Board of Education.

Administrators and teachers also expressed in surveys and anecdotal comments a general malaise with top leadership.

O'Rourke, who replaced Hickey, left last February after the school board refused to renew his contract.

The board turned to Cousin - a familiar face who had spent 16 years as a Howard County school administrator before retiring in 2003 - to turn that around: first as the interim superintendent before permanently appointing him in July. Cousin, whose salary is $199,000 a year, is the highest-paid county employee.

"I expected him to come in and calm things down immediately," said Courtney Watson, the board chairman. "I thought there would be a honeymoon period that would end after three months. That hasn't happened. He has garnered as much respect now as he did then."

Cousin acted quickly to restore trust and confidence in his office by luring back former Howard administrators to fill some key positions that had been left vacant under O'Rourke. To quell the turmoil in schools and in the community, Cousin met with principals, PTAs and other groups during the summer.

Indicative of Cousin's knack for listening to concerns and responding is the recent situation at Faulkner Ridge Center, where one confirmed case of Legionnaires' disease frightened employees and prompted Cousin to order tests of the building, said Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association.

"People have renewed faith in the leadership of the superintendent," Staub said.

And Cousin picked up again a habit he had developed when he first came to Howard County in 1987 as director of school construction and planning and continued as deputy superintendent from 2001-2003: visiting schools each Friday.

"I get to see things for myself and not through filters and get a chance to talk to people at all levels - students, secretaries, instructional assistants, teachers, administrators, custodians, food service workers," Cousin said. "It lets folks in the schools know that someone is interested in them as individuals and in their schools in particular."

Many point to that kind of hands-on leadership - described as collaborative, engaging and approachable - as setting a renewed tone this year in contrast to what some described as a top-down and standoffish approach associated with his predecessor.

"When I first came back, I was surprised by how much the climate had changed," said Sandra J. Erickson, chief academic and administrative officer who was drawn back to Howard County after leaving in 2001. "Sydney's mere presence has brought calm and restoration of the importance and the value of teachers and principals and their input into decision-making. That was key in getting the school system back in track."

His serious demeanor represents his thoughtful and deliberate nature. But Cousin is just as known for his dry sense of humor and his sharp suits and ties - style he credits to his wife, Marion.

At board meetings, members have come to expect straight-forward answers from Cousin, who characterized his relationship with the board as collaborative.

Watson agreed, saying, "He works very well with the board. He listens; he hears everyone's opinion and takes that into consideration."

That type of relationship is crucial to the continual development and success of a school system, educational leadership experts say.

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