Schools Chief Pick for D.C. A Risk-Taker
Those Who Know Him Say Educator Is Worth Wooing
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page C01
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The principal of a middle school in this large coastal city had been asked several times to take the principal's job at 4,700-student Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Repeatedly, he had said no.
Then one day, while out talking to students, he heard on his walkie-talkie that there was an unscheduled visitor in his office, Long Beach Superintendent Carl A. Cohn. He greeted the smiling, well-dressed Cohn with the same polite refusal. He didn't want to go to Long Beach Poly.
Cohn's smile only got bigger. "Well, that's very interesting," the superintendent told Principal Shawn Ashley, "but we don't always get what we want in life, do we, Shawn."
And so Ashley soon found himself at the big high school, enjoying the job in spite of himself and shaking his head, as many other Long Beach educators have done, at Cohn's persistence and focus.
Last week, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and other top District officials identified Cohn as their first choice to become the next D.C. school superintendent, after flying 2,700 miles to California to woo him. Although he has not decided whether to come to Washington, the 58-year-old professor already has had an impact in the city: During a private breakfast with Williams, he persuaded the mayor to drop his high-profile campaign to win direct control of D.C. schools.
Educators, parents and public officials in Long Beach, the state's third-largest school district, said Cohn is well worth the attention that D.C. leaders are lavishing on him.
During 10 years as Long Beach superintendent, they said, Cohn sparked major improvement in the district with such initiatives as school uniforms for students up to eighth grade, new reading requirements for third-graders and some single-sex classes. He raised test scores significantly and is credited with improving student attendance, lowering suspension and dropout rates and raising the number of college-prep classes.
Still, many analysts wonder whether Cohn can succeed in the District, where low student achievement and political battles between the school system's overseers -- including the mayor, the D.C. Council, the school board and Congress -- have made the superintendency one of the most difficult assignments in American education.
"We know that visionary leadership that is allowed to be implemented absolutely can improve beleaguered school districts," said Ross Wiener, policy director of the Washington-based nonprofit group, The Education Trust, who admires Cohn's accomplishments.
"But a superintendent cannot be expected to be an ombudsman or referee for the fractured debates over governance and control that you find in this city."
Several previous D.C. superintendents arrived promising bold changes, only to be frustrated by political bickering and by the scope of the school system's academic, financial and personnel problems. In particular, they found that tackling dysfunction in the most basic administrative operations, such as payroll and budgeting, often prevented them from focusing on improvements in classroom teaching and learning.
Cohn retired as Long Beach superintendent in 2002 to be a professor at the University of Southern California's education school, saying he was through with the stresses of running a big urban district. So Long Beach friends were surprised when he showed interest in the D.C. job. Cohn said he is talking to his family about the possible move and asking many school experts in the District and elsewhere just how difficult they think it would be to fix the city's schools.
Those who have worked with him said that although Cohn would have to deal with a more divided political community in Washington, his record in Long Beach shows that he can be tenacious in fighting for his ideas.
"He's not afraid to take risks," said Clarence Rhone, a coach at Long Beach Poly. "He's not afraid to step on people's toes."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Carl A. Cohn, former superintendent of schools in Long Beach, Calif., is District officials' top choice to lead the D.C. school system.
(Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)