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.
"The school board needs to be assured that the superintendent has the knowledge and expertise that they need to hear," said Margaret Grogan, professor and chairwoman of the department of education leadership and policy analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
But amid the backdrop of "No Child Left Behind" and other high-stakes testing, Cousin, like his counterparts across the country, faces the challenges and pressures of meeting higher expectations and showing results.
"Superintendents have been caught in a tough situation," said Thomas Glass, professor of education leadership at the University of Memphis. "Expectations for student performance go upward while resources available go downward."
Cousin sees that firsthand in a county where the school system is an article of faith. Although the school district has consistently ranked as the top-performing in the state, educators have felt a tightening money belt while needs of a diverse and growing student population have grown.
Regardless, the school system already has met its 2005 goal of having 70 percent of students meeting state standards in reading and math. The next step is to have 70 percent of all student groups - broken by racial, socioeconomic, English-speaking ability and special education categories - meet the standards by 2007, ahead of the 2014 deadline set by No Child Left Behind.
"We're poised to make some great progress in terms of academics," Watson said.
Black students showed solid improvements on standardized tests this year but still lag behind their white counterparts.
More efforts need to be made in hiring additional staff for the Black Student Achievement Program, whose budget remains flat for next year, said Ken Jennings, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County.
"I think Sydney is doing a wonderful job, but this raises a serious concern for me," he said.
More than ever, the school system is committed to building on its academic progress, particularly in closing the achievement gap, Cousin said.
"I think the system is in position to do that and make continuous improvements to close the achievement gap and raise the educational attainment of all students," he said.
Equally important as academic success is a welcoming and nurturing school environment for students, parents, teachers and community members alike, Cousin said. School visits are by far one of his favorite activities as superintendent.
At Running Brook Elementary School in Columbia on Feb. 18, Cousin read parts of Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt to a third-grade class during a guest-reader event.
Cousin made unannounced visits - so that nothing special is done for him - to Wilde Lake middle and high schools, and Longfellow and Bryant Woods elementary schools.
At Wilde Lake Middle, Cousin was interested in its social studies classes, where pupils posted the highest scores on a recent quarterly assessment.
Seventh-graders in Greg Dutton's social studies class demonstrated one of their unusual lessons by singing about ancient Greece to "Rapper's Delight," an old-school rap song by the Sugarhill Gang.
Dutton explained to Cousin that he had written the lyrics to help his pupils learn.
"It works," Cousin said after the students finished singing.
At Wilde Lake High School, Assistant Principals Marcy Leonard and Nelda Sims took Cousin on a tour of the building.
Cousin ducked in and out of classrooms. The superintendent talked to a student about snow days, which the school system hadn't had until Thursday and Friday.
"It's been nice to have a superintendent in the schools - the importance of being in the trenches," Leonard said. "Dr. Cousin has always been accessible."
Sydney L. Cousin
History teacher, Lombard Junior High School in Baltimore, 1967-1970.
Capital program planner, Baltimore City Department of Planning, 1972-1973.
Long-range facilities planner and director, Baltimore City public schools, 1973-1987.
Director of school construction and planning, associate superintendent and deputy superintendent, Howard County public schools, 1987-2003.
Interim superintendent, Howard County public schools, March-July 2004.
Superintendent, Howard County public schools, July 2004-present.
Bachelor's degree in history from Morgan State College (now Morgan State University).
Master's degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania.
Doctorate in education from Temple University in Philadelphia.
Residence: Ellicott City.
Family life: Married for 15 years to Marion; four children, including two from a previous marriage.
Best thing about the job: "Dealing with activities involving kids."
Worst thing about the job: "The lack of civility you encounter sometimes. We have the same goals for the [school] system and students. It's how we go about achieving those goals."