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Chapter closes on Superintendent Cousin's career

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."

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."

Students at Lombard came mostly from public housing, Cousin said, and he quickly learned where the students lived, based on their behavior.

"You can tell the difference between kids who came from low-rise housing, like two or three stories, where their mothers can look out the window and say, 'stop that,' " he said. "But when you're on the 22nd floor, you can't do any of that, and the kids' behavior demonstrated that in the classroom."

He left his teaching job in 1970 to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his master's degree in city and regional planning — a degree he put to use as capital planner for the Baltimore City Department of Planning.

"It was something I had long thought about doing," he said. "I had no plans to return to education, but downtown redevelopment was happening, and I was working on school construction projects."

He soon rejoined the world of education, however, returning in 1973 to Baltimore City schools as a long-range planner in the Division of Physical Plant Planning and Programming. Four years later, he became the staff director of that division, before earning his doctorate in education from Temple University in 1986. In 1987, he joined the Howard County Public School System as director of school construction and planning.

He was only in that position for two years. In 1989, he became associate superintendent of finance and operations. In 2001, he became the deputy superintendent and chief operating officer for Howard schools.

"People think I've spent my entire career doing that work (school construction), but I have been involved in the building of 34 new schools since I've been here, and the renovation of many more," he said. "My training as a planner, that's how I got into school construction. … I've had my battles: I've certainly given my pound of flesh to progress the school system."

'Personal connections'

The school system has grown in leaps and bounds in the quarter-century Cousin has been a part of it. In 1987, there were 26,750 students in about 40 schools. Now, more than 50,000 students attend classes in 74 buildings.

Cousin spent a lot of time in those schools, talking to students, teachers and other school employees. Every Friday, until his health worsened (he was on medical leave for four months in 2011), he would visit schools — preferring to enter schools through the cafeteria, speaking to any and all employees.

"It was to let people know they were the important ones," he said. "I wouldn't even go to the principal. I would go to the food-service workers, the maintenance workers, the secretaries, because they knew what was going on in the school. I would ask them, 'what do you need to be successful?'

"That was a valuable part of my job, because if I stayed in this office, I'm the dumbest person in the school system."

Those people, Cousin said, are what he will miss most about this job.

"We have a very talented staff, at all levels," he said. "I try to treat everyone the same, whether they're a chief of a department or a bus driver. I think that has served me well."

When the top resource an organization has is its people, as in the school system, it's important to have an open door and make sure each person feels valued, Watson said, and Cousin did just that.

"If you value every single person who works for the school system, they will produce the best results," she said. "That was really what he was about, the value of the person."

Ulman said Cousin should be commended for the "thousands and thousands of lives" he has touched.

School Board Chairwoman Sandra French agreed.

"He was a role model himself to all the children, saying, 'See, you can succeed,' " French said. "I think the personal connections he made are the most important. It's just his style. I know he regretted not being able to visit the schools the way he used to. ... Visiting those schools and talking with those students — making those personal connections — those are going to live long, as those kids grow up."

For Cousin, it was just part of the job.

"Our job is to make sure they become good citizens," he said. "Seeing success is the most rewarding part of the work."

Volunteer work

After retirement, Cousin said he plans to spend more time volunteering at his church and with the ARC of Howard County. But for the first year of life after education, he will take it easy, spending time with his wife, four children and six grandchildren.

"I'm still not fully recovered, even though my cancer is in remission," he said. "I feel pretty good most of the time, though I have good days and bad days. Stopping the chemotherapy I thought would be a good thing, but there are still some neurological things I have to deal with."

Cousin was on medical leave for four months in early 2011, battling lymphoma. Upon his return in late April 2011, he was only able to work two or three days a week. Within the month, Cousin announced he would retire when his contract expired June 30, 2012 — now, just a few days away.

"I'm better at work than I am at home," Cousin said of his ongoing recovery. "My mind is engaged; and at home, I like to read, but I'm reading and just falling asleep.

"I have to have something to keep me active."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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