During his eight-year tenure as superintendent of Howard County public schools, Dr. Sydney L. Cousin was known for fostering a close relationship with school personnel. He had a routine: every Friday he would visit schools, coming through the cafeterias to speak with rank-and-file employees.
"It was to let people know they were the important ones," he told the Howard County Times in 2012. "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,” he said. “If I stayed in this office, I'm the dumbest person in the school system."
Dr. Cousin, whose 25-year career with Howard County public schools included serving as the system’s first African-American superintendent, died Friday in his Columbia home after a long illness. He was 72.
“Dr. Cousin firmly believed that ‘every child can learn,’ and he embodied inclusiveness and kindness to all,” said Dr. Michael J. Martirano, the system’s current superintendent, in a statement. “His calm and steady demeanor, deep compassion and quiet yet assured nature represented an anchor of stability to countless staff, students and parents.”
“Throughout his career… Sydney was committed to the success and well-being of all students in Howard County and was widely considered one of the best superintendents in the nation,” said Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman in a post on his Facebook page.
“He was an excellent husband and a wonderful father,” said Marion Cousin, 68, his wife of 28 years.
Dr. Cousin was the son of William and Mamie Cousin.
Raised in Baltimore, he graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, then obtained a bachelor's degree in history from Morgan State University. His first job in education came in 1967 as a history teacher at Lombard Junior High School in Baltimore City.
"I was in the teachers’ program at Morgan State University, where they would pay for your tuition if you promised to teach for two years," he said in the Howard County Times article.
There were 3,600 students in Lombard, Dr. Cousin said. He had 55 students 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."
He left the job in 1970 to attend the University of Pennsylvania. There, he received a master's degree in city and regional planning. From 1972 to 1973, he worked as a capital program planner for the Baltimore City Department of Planning.
In 1973 he rejoined 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.
He then went back to school, obtaining his doctorate in education from Temple University in 1986.
In a 2004 article in The Washington Post, he recalled moving to Columbia’s Long Reach community in 1973. When he went to enroll his sixth-grade son in then-Owen Brown Middle School, he was told the boy should start in the lowest-level classes because "he's coming from the city."
“Cousin would have none of it,” The Post reported. It quoted him saying: "My interpretation [of their reasoning] is that he was black."
“He persuaded the school to put his son, who was scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized tests, in a higher-performing class,” The Post wrote.
In 1987, Dr. Cousin joined Howard County schools as director of school construction and planning, and in 1989 became superintendent of finance and operations. He was named deputy superintendent and chief operating officer for the system in 2001.
He left the system briefly in 2003, but returned to Howard County as interim superintendent in March 2004.
At the time, the school system was dealing with a messy split with then-superintendent John R. O’Rourke, as well as grade-changing scandals at Oakland Mills High School and Centennial High School.
Dr. Cousin was named permanent superintendent later that year. He served eight years and retired in 2012.
Courtney Watson, then-chair of the school board and later a member of the County Council, said in 2004 the board had considered conducting a national search for a superintendent but decided Dr. Cousin was the obvious choice.
“Because he had been in the school system for so long, he was able to calm the waters and get the school system back on track,” Ms. Watson said.
She said Dr. Cousin had a knack for bringing people on opposite ends of an issue together, and at the end having them all on the same page, laughing.
“He had a gift of diffusing any kind of conflict, and that made him a great superintendent because he always got people rowing in the same direction. He had a tremendous impact on the school system during his time,” Watson said. “He was a really, really good person.”
In 2005, The Baltimore Sun reported that a survey conducted by the Howard County Education Association found that more than 75 percent of teachers and support personnel who responded said they had confidence in Dr. Cousin's leadership, “a stark contrast to O'Rourke's 34 percent approval rating.”
That same year, results of Maryland School Assessments showed Howard County students outperforming others in the region and across the state, with improvements among African-American and Hispanic students, The Sun reported.
One of Cousin’s “greatest legacies,” Ms. Watson said, was implementing a cultural proficiency program that helped parents, educators, board members and PTA members become more culturally aware at a time when the school system’s population was becoming more and more diverse.
Over the span of his career with Howard County schools, the system grew from 26,750 students in about 40 schools to more than 50,000 students in 74 buildings at the time of his retirement.
Dr. Cousin “always got our schools built on time and under budget,” Ms. Watson said.
For instance, she said, when the school system was in a crunch to open Marriotts Ridge High School, Dr. Cousin got the school built in 18 months and spent $35 million of the $50 million allocated.
“He built or opened five or six schools, and we haven’t seen that rate of school construction since — it was because he understood school construction,” Ms. Watson said.
Willie Flowers, president of the Howard County Branch of the NAACP, lauded Dr. Cousin’s work to promote minority achievement. He said the superintendent stabilized the school system’s Black Student Achievement Program, which works to close achievement gaps, and also advocated for Alpha Achievers, a program that helps county high school students attain, maintain and exceed a 3.0 grade point average.
Other programs he championed included Delta Scholars, a service-based honor society for African-American female students, and the Maryland Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program.
“He supported the work for creating outlets for African-Americans students in the school system when he was superintendent,” Mr. Flowers said. “We will continue to do his work.”
Calvin Ball, a member of the Howard County Council, posted on his Facebook page Friday that Dr. Cousin was a “mentor” and “influential force when it came to education in our county. He was an advocate for inclusiveness and bettering the quality of education for every single one of our students.”
Dr. Cousin was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2010, and was also diagnosed with an undetermined neurological condition. In early 2011 he took medical leave for four months. Shortly after returning, he announced he would retire when his contract expired in June 2012.
Mamie J. Perkins, who had worked in the school system for 26 years, became interim superintendent after Dr. Cousin retired.
“He was a wonderful boss, he was in charge and he cared about his employees,” Ms. Perkins said.
In his statement, Dr. Martirano said that when he was named superintendent last year, Dr. Cousin “immediately reached out to me…. I will forever be grateful for his advice and support during those early days. Dr. Cousin will be greatly missed by all who had the privilege of knowing and working with him.”
A viewing for Dr. Cousin will be held 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at Howell Funeral Home, 10220 Guilford Road, Jessup. A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Bridgeway Community Church, 9189 Red Branch Road, Columbia. Also Saturday, a second service following burial will be held at Columbia Community Church, 8516 Thomas Williams Way, Columbia, at a time to be determined.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Cousin is survived by sons James E. Woods of Randallstown, Sydney Cousin Jr. of Seattle and Kevin Woods of Atlanta; daughter Nicole Gossett of Columbia, Md.; and eight grandchildren.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.