Cousin ponders retiring

Superintendent `back and forth' over departure

December 12, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

Sydney L. Cousin is contemplating retiring as head of Howard County's school system in June.

Although Cousin's contract doesn't expire for more than six months, state regulations require the superintendent to inform the Howard County Board of Education by the end of January whether he wants to continue as superintendent. The board is then required to decide by the end of February whether to renew his contract.

"I'm going back and forth with what I should do," Cousin said. "There is a process which must be followed."

He said his desire to close the student achievement gap - particularly among minority students - is making it difficult for Cousin to decide about retirement.

`There is some unfinished work that needs to be done," said Cousin, who turned 62 last week.

Still, under Cousin's leadership, standardized scores on high school assessment tests have improved among all student groups in Howard County.

For example, Howard County juniors outperformed their Maryland counterparts by as many as 20 percentage points in some cases on the High School Assessments, according to data released in September by the State Department of Education. And for the first time in the school system's history, every subgroup in fourth grade met the county's standard of scoring 70 percent proficient in reading for the Maryland School Assessments during the 2006-2007 school year.

"I am very pleased with the progress that we have made in the school system," Cousin said. "I'm sure that progress is going to continue into the future."

Cousin was lured out of retirement in 2004. At that time, the school system was dealing with grade-changing scandals at Oakland Mills and Centennial high schools, false rape allegations at Mount Hebron High and a messy split between then-Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and the school board.

Cousin was well-known to the school board, having retired as deputy superintendent in 2003 after serving in the system for 16 years.

"I was trying to get the ship righted," Cousin said. "I think that has happened. I think now we are in pretty good shape."

School board member Sandra H. French, who was on the board that chose not to renew O'Rourke's contract and hired Cousin, recalled that "it was an extremely decisive and emotional time."

"Sydney's personality and expertise helped to calm the emotional waters of the employees and the parents," French said. "There was an established trust level. People knew the quality of his work and the positive way that he worked with people."

Cousin became interim superintendent in March 2004 and permanent superintendent in July 2004.

"I felt privileged to be invited back and to be chosen as the permanent superintendent," Cousin said. "These last two years have passed by very quickly."

French, who was re-elected to the board last year after a two-year hiatus, said she has been impressed by how Cousin has continued the maintain the positive working relationships that made him so popular when he started as superintendent.

"He works with the board; he listens to the board; he is very honest with his comments to the board as far as advice," French said. "He is willing to collaborate. He has set the tone for the rest of his staff. The end result is that we are able to listen to each other's concerns and to work together to create the best situation possible for the students and for the schools.

"Personally, I hope he doesn't retire."

After a relatively smooth transition during his first year as head of the school system, Cousin experienced a challenging 2006-2007 school year.

He battled a chronic back problem caused by a car accident in October last year, and then he weathered the storm caused by the separate arrests this year of four teachers, three on charges of having sexual conduct with students.

Cousin said the adversity has nothing to do with his possible departure from the school system.

"Those things that have come up that have negative connotations have been dealt with very actively when being brought to resolution," Cousin said. "It is better for these things to come forth than to be hidden underneath."

Eighty-five percent of Howard County school employees expressed confidence in Cousin, according to the 2006-2007 job satisfaction survey conducted by the Howard County Education Association.

Mamie J. Perkins, who was hired by Cousin as his chief of staff, said the two have enjoyed a great working relationship.

"He has a sense of focus as to how and where things should be run," she said.

Perkins said she is impressed with Cousin's enthusiasm and vigor.

"When he is finished [with lunch], he gets up and is ready to leave," she said. "You better be ready. Many times I would be carrying my half-eaten sandwich. He's a man on the move!"

If he decides to retire, Cousin said he would consider a return to the classroom as a teacher or pursuing a childhood dream of being a librarian at a college campus.

"I retired before; I retired for a reason," Cousin said. "I wanted to go off and try some different things."

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