Princeton’s New Schools Superintendent Wants to “Hit the Ground Listening”
When Stephen C. Cochrane was appointed Superintendent of Princeton Public Schools (PPS), members of the Princeton School Board described him as “a rising star” in education. He was their unanimous choice, for his child-centered vision and collaborative leadership style.
Mr. Cochrane, 53, signed a four-and-a-half year contract with PPS, replacing Superintendent Judith A. Wilson who left after nine years at the end of 2013.
The new superintendent has worked in education for some 30 years, as an elementary school teacher, principal, and most recently as assistant superintendent for curriculum in the Upper Freehold Regional school district. He formerly served as an admissions officer and assistant dean of students at PrincetonUniversity, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s in English literature in 1981. He also has a master’s in education from Harvard.
In an interview in his office in the PPS administrative offices on Valley Road Monday, Mr. Cochrane was asked if he came in with a mandate for change. His response was an emphatic “No.”
“The school board recognized the path that Judy Wilson had put in place, bounded on the one side by a coherent curriculum and on the other by human compassion and kindness. That’s Judy’s legacy and the Board was looking for someone to continue that balance of rigorous performance, creativity, kindness and compassion.”
“My mandate was to listen,” he said. “I didn’t want to hit the ground running but to hit the ground listening.”
Since starting the job January 1, he’s met with and listened to as “many groups and individuals as I could, teachers, parents, supervisors, community partners, and students.” Student focus groups helped him discover what they love about school and what they believe needs to be improved.
“Superintendents, especially new ones, rarely have all the answers. Listening provides information and insight. It helps one consider divergent perspectives as well as discover common themes and goals. Listening, truly listening, shows that you care. It helps you get to know people and to build the trust that is the foundation of all future work.”
Originally from Seattle,Mr. Cochrane came to Princeton in 1977 to study at the University. Although his childhood ambitions ranged from being an ornithologist in 3rd grade to being a professional footballer in 5th grade, he became interested in international relations and politics in high school and turned down offers from Georgetown and Stanford to come to Princeton. Once here, however, he switched to English literature.
Fondness for Princeton prompted him to throw his hat in the ring for Judy Wilson’s job. That and the idea that this would be an opportunity for him to “give back” and “make a difference.” He recalls being a shy freshman at Princeton in the fall of 1977 and feels gratitude for the professors, preceptors, and families in town who helped a quiet kid from Seattle find his voice.
Although he loved working as an assistant principal for curriculum and had actually avoided taking on a superintendent’s position with its attendant responsibilities for buildings and budgets and so on, he was drawn to the Princeton job because “education in New Jersey and nationally is heading into ‘troubled waters’ and I feel that good leadership is needed and that Princeton could serve as a flagship that would set a path for others.”
Together with his Canadian wife Eve, he lives in New Brunswick with a Princeton address. The couple has been married for just two and a half years. They met at a spin class in New York City and both are trained spin instructors. Asked if he and his wife were planning to have children, he didn’t rule out the possibility, even though, in a manner of speaking, he’s just acquired some 3,700 kids courtesy of the PPS.
A competitive team cyclist who has been racing road bikes for several decades along Carter Road, Route 518, in Mercer County Park, Washington Crossing State Park, and throughout the Sourland Mountains, he’s learned about shared leadership.
Cyclists function as a team that goes further and faster when the leader is rotated. “It takes 30 percent less energy to push through the wind when you are sitting behind the leader,” he said. “In Princeton, there are many people with the ability to lead and willingness to contribute to the advancement of our kids. The leader sets the pace and determines the direction but doesn’t always have to be out in front.”
A Perfect Storm
With teachers and administrators having to implement rigorous new Common Core standards and prepare students for new, computer-based testing, as well as facing evaluations based on student test results, Mr. Cochrane sees a perfect storm brewing in the world of education.
“Every district in New Jersey and across the country has been addressing the implementation of these standards that require children to solve complex problems, the kind of work we want our kids to be doing. As standards go, they give us a lot to work with. Teachers have the freedom to teach the standards in ways that make sense to them,” he said.
As far as the associated testing is concerned, however, he’s reserving judgement as to how the computer-based exams will fair when they replace the ASK and HESPA in the 2015-2016 academic year. “There may be some glitches at the start depending on how well the tests are designed, but ideally they should give us results sooner and that’s a positive.”
“As a district we’re moving in a direction that offers choice in the learning path for every individual child. Take, for example, reading at the elementary level. We are using the Reading Workshop developed at the Columbia Teachers College. While kids will be undertaking the same reading strategy, they will not all be reading the same book. Each child will be reading a book of his/her choice at his/her reading level. In this way, all will be engaged. There are target standards, but how we get there varies from child to child.”
The challenge for teachers here is obvious. “More instructional expertise is required,” acknowledged Mr. Cochrane, “and that’s the sort of thing that teachers learn on professional development days.
“One of the things that is important in Princeton is that each and every child is known, not just the high flyers. Every child should have a relationship with a caring adult.”
The PPS Website features a get-to-know the Superintendent interview which reveals his “cool” side, as the driver of a Mini Cooper, who enjoys watching Shark Tank and back-to-back episodes of The Big Bang Theory. It also reveals snippets of his background, that his father was a bishop in the Episcopal Church, for example, and that as a rookie teacher he learned that “Being a mediocre teacher is not that hard. Being a great teacher is the hardest job in the world, and the most rewarding.”
Contracts and Criticisms
A little over three months after his arrival, Mr. Cochrane faces lengthy contract negotiations with the the 370-member teachers union, Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA). Talks began behind closed doors April 10 and will continue until resolved.
Asked for comment on recent criticisms of the school district published in a 3900 word article by Princeton parent Michael Graziano in the online magazine Aeon and then reprinted in the March 26 issue of US1 Weekly, Mr. Cochrane supplied the following statement: “The Princeton Public Schools are committed to caring for every child, responding appropriately to the needs of every child, and learning from every situation we encounter as professionals. I am confident we are upholding that commitment in each of our schools. Do we review any concerns brought to us by a parent? Yes. Do we compromise the privacy of our children and families or the confidentiality of our professionals by responding to allegations in the press? We do not. We live in a community that cares deeply about its children. Parents, school professionals, even members of the press have a responsibility to protect those children. I would like to believe we can all continue to work together to do just that.”
Mr. Graziano’s article, “An Inconvenient Child,” reports his dissatisfaction with how the Princeton Public School district handled the disability of his (then) six-year-old son (http://aeon.co/magazine/living-together/how-apraxia-got-my-son-suspended-from-school/). Mr. Graziano is a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University.
This week’s issue of Town Topics includes a Letter to the Editor about the issue from a former president of the Prince-ton Board of Education.