Sydney L. Cousin, who spent 25 years in the Howard County public schools, including eight years as the system’s first African American superintendent, died Aug. 17 at his home in Columbia, Md. He was 72.
Officials in the school system and Howard County government confirmed the death. Dr. Cousin was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2010, and was also diagnosed with an undetermined neurological condition.
After teaching and working in long-range planning for the Baltimore public schools, Dr. Cousin joined the Howard County school system in 1987 as director of school construction and planning. He became superintendent of finance and operations in 1989, and then was named deputy superintendent and chief operating officer 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 and served eight years until his retirement in 2012.
“Dr. Cousin firmly believed that ‘every child can learn,’ and he embodied inclusiveness and kindness to all,” Michael J. Martirano, the system’s current superintendent, said in a statement.
Courtney Watson, then-chair of the school board and later a member of the County Council, said in 2004 that the board had considered conducting a national search for a superintendent but decided that 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,” Watson said.
She said Dr. Cousin had a knack for bringing people on opposite ends of an issue together.
“He had a gift of discussing any kind of conflict, and that made him a great superintendent because he always got people rowing in the same direction,” Watson said. “He had a tremendous impact on the school system during his time.”
Dr. Cousin implemented a cultural proficiency program to help parents, educators and school board members understand the school system’s growing diversity. During his career with the Howard County schools, the system grew from 26,750 students in about 40 schools to more than 50,000 students in 74 buildings.
Willie Flowers, president of the Howard County Branch of the NAACP, lauded Dr. Cousin’s work to promote minority achievement.
Dr. Cousin was born in Baltimore and 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.
He left the job in 1970 to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where 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 the Baltimore schools as a long-range planner, and four years later became the planning division’s staff director. He received a doctorate in education from Philadelphia’s Temple University in 1986.
In a 2004 article in The Washington Post, Dr. Cousin recalled moving to Columbia’s Long Reach community in 1973. When he went to enroll his sixth-grade son in middle school, he was told that his son should start in the lowest-level classes because “he’s coming from the city.”
“Cousin would have none of it,” The Post reported. He said, “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 article noted.
In addition to his wife, Marion Cousin of Columbia, survivors include four children and eight grandchildren.
Dr. Cousin was known for fostering a close relationship with school personnel. Every Friday, he visited schools, often speaking with rank-and-file employees in the cafeteria.
“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.”