School & District Management

Cohn Selected to Lead Schools in San Diego

By Jeff Archer — August 09, 2005 3 min read
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Both fans and critics of San Diego’s closely watched school improvement efforts are applauding the choice of Carl A. Cohn, a former superintendent of the Long Beach, Calif., schools, as the system’s next leader.

By a 5-0 vote last month, the San Diego school board picked the 59-year-old educator over five other, unnamed finalists.

Mr. Cohn, who won wide acclaim during his decade at the helm of the 100,000-student Long Beach system, is to start his new job in October.

“We are ecstatic,” Luis Acle, the president of the San Diego school board, said in an interview last week. “The judgment is uniform: Everybody is happy. I have not heard anybody saying, ‘You guys made a mistake.’ ”

Interest ran high in who would succeed Alan D. Bersin, who drew national attention to San Diego over seven years of major changes aimed at raising the level of instruction across California’s second-largest school district.

But Mr. Bersin, a former federal prosecutor with no prior experience in education, also prompted heated debate with his top-down style, although his tenure in the 140,000-student district coincided with improved student results, particularly in the elementary grades.

A school board election last fall erased his slim margin of support, and the new board negotiated an early end to his contract in January.

Mr. Bersin is now California’s secretary of education.

Robert B. Schwartz, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education who has studied the Long Beach and San Diego districts and is impressed with both, said Mr. Cohn is well suited to pick up where Mr. Bersin left off.

“He’s all about relationships, and I think that’s exactly what that system needs,” Mr. Schwartz said. “And he knows what a high-performing district looks like because he created one.”

In Long Beach, where he was superintendent from 1992 to 2002, Mr. Cohn designed new academic standards, required summer school for low-performing students, and beefed up training for teachers in literacy instruction.

He instituted mandatory school uniforms for all elementary and middle school students—a first in the nation among public school systems.

Test scores in Long Beach rose steadily during his tenure, and dropout rates fell. Gaps in performance remain between students from different socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups, but the district’s progress was enough to garner it the 2003 Broad Prize in Urban Education, which recognizes improved student achievement.

People Skills Praised

Mr. Cohn drew praise for his people skills. Mr. Schwartz noted that in Long Beach, the superintendent began meeting with the school board in quarterly retreats to hash out big issues. Mr. Cohn also made regular school visits with the head of the local teachers’ union.

Terry Pesta, the president of the San Diego Education Association, said he was optimistic that Mr. Cohn would forge similar alliances in his new post. The San Diego affiliate of the National Education Association was a staunch opponent of Mr. Bersin’s management style.

“We hope that when changes are contemplated, that [Mr. Cohn] actually listens to teachers and community groups,” Mr. Pesta said.

Contract Sets Board Role

Already, Mr. Cohn has begun to shape relations with the San Diego board. A clause in his contract specifies that the board “shall not unreasonably interfere with the day-to-day decisionmaking processes of the superintendent.”

Since taking office last fall, the new board has cut some of the former superintendent’s initiatives, including a mandate that all schools have “peer coaches,” or teachers who work with their colleagues to hone their craft. (“Early Bersin Exit Further Clouds San Diego Plans,” Feb. 9, 2005)

At his first public meeting with the board last month, Mr. Cohn pledged no change in his own leadership style.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2005 edition of Education Week as Cohn Selected to Lead Schools in San Diego

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