Dr. Sydney Cousin

Howard County Superintendent Dr. Sydney Cousin poses for a photo with board members after they gave him a surprise proclamation in his honor June 26 at Howard County Department of Education building. From left is Frank Aquino, Janet Siddiqui, student member Tomi Williams, Dr. Cousin, Allen Dyer, Cynthia Vaillancourt, Sandra French, Ellen Giles and Brian Meshkin. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda / June 27, 2012)

Treat people fairly. Deal with issues honestly. Help kids reach their full potential. Those are the philosophies Sydney Cousin said have helped guide his career in education — a career that has spanned more than four decades — and they are philosophies Cousin's supporters say his work exemplifies.

Cousin has been a part of the Howard County Public School System for 25 years, the last eight or so spent at the schools' helm, as superintendent. Now, his career is drawing to a close, with his retirement June 30.

"He has been a very calming presence and the voice of reason," said County Council member and former Board of Education Chairwoman Courtney Watson. "He was the steadying hand that calmed the waters. ...

"If there was a problem anywhere, you could go to Dr. Cousin, and he was able to solve the problem in a way that made everyone feel valued."

Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

Watson chaired the Board of Education during the few months in 2003-2004 when Cousin was not a part of school system. He briefly retired from Howard County, leaving his position as deputy superintendent and chief operating officer to join theWashington, D.C., school system as an associate superintendent in July 2003.

By March 2004, he was back as interim superintendent, and in July as permanent superintendent, to "calm the waters," as Watson said, roiled by the abrupt departure of then-Superintendent John O'Rourke, several months before his contract was set to expire.

"It was a very turbulent time in the system," Watson said. "Dr. Cousin came back, and it was his job to stabilize the school system, and he did just that."

County Executive Ken Ulman was a member of the County Council when Cousin returned to the system. With his return, Cousin brought stability and credibility to the system, Ulman said.

"He leaves a legacy of, first and foremost, a great school system that is making strides to be even better," Ulman said. "His legacy will also be the rebuilding of credibility in our top-ranked system after a couple of tough years. ... I think we are incredibly well-positioned to continue that success and move forward."

Cousin views that time in simpler terms.

"When I came back here, it was pretty chaotic," he said. "I thought I could help. … I was trying to build people back up.I wanted people to know that this was still a good place to educate kids.

"As far as I could see, the problem was not in the schools: It was in Central Office. People knew me, and they knew I wanted to help.

At the end of the week, Cousin will hand over the reins to Renee Foose, currently deputy superintendent of Baltimore County schools. Foose, who will become the first female superintendent in the system's history, will start her job on July 2.

But for these last few days, Cousin will remain the educator he has been for decades.

Teaching history

Cousin, 66, a native of Baltimore, first entered the field of education in 1967, when he took a job as a history teacher at Lombard Junior High School in Baltimore City.

It was an extension of Cousin's love of history; he initially wanted to be a librarian, he said, and work as an archivist — a passion he may still try to pursue.

"I was in the teacher's program at Morgan State University, where they would pay for your tuition if you promised to teach for two years," he said. "I was a history major, and that just seemed like the thing to do."

There were 3,600 students in Lombard Junior High, Cousin said, 1,200 on each floor. He had 55 students enrolled in his class, but only 50 desks.

"That was a good learning experience," he said. "That was my first year of teaching, and that was what we had to deal with."