Listening to community voices: Superintendent Stephen Cochrane’s adjustment period

Superintendent Stephen Cochrane's term began on January 1. His entry plan includes meeting with staff, students, and community partners. photo: Severine Stier

Superintendent Stephen Cochrane’s term began on January 1. His entry plan includes meeting with staff, students, and community partners.
photo: Severine Stier

Stephen Cochrane began his term as Princeton Public Schools District superintendent on January 1, 2014. Prior to his appointment, Cochrane spent many years in public education, serving as an elementary school teacher, elementary and middle school principal, and assistant superintendent.

He said his primary goal has been to learn more about the district. “The plan has worked out very well, which was to try and … hit the ground learning,” Cochrane said. “I did come in with a structured entry plan which allowed me to sort of strategically talk to a lot of different groups with an investment in the learning that’s taking place within our schools.”

In working through this plan, Cochrane has been speaking to many different groups, including teachers, secretaries, bus drivers, custodians, students, and administrators.

“He is working hard to build relationships with the community… so that if an issue arises, it’s not the first time [he’s] having a working conversation,” said PHS Principal Gary Snyder.

“The Board has [given] me this time to really listen. I think … successful leaders, especially in school settings, are ones who are able to listen to a variety of perspectives,” said Cochrane.

Soon after his appointment, Cochrane began to familiarize himself with the school system in Princeton, visiting classrooms and observing how the schools were run. He said he is in the process of setting up focus groups of PHS students and also intends to meet with student groups at the elementary and middle schools.

“I’m eager to hear the kinds of visions our students have for what they want to accomplish in their lives and work backwards to say ‘How can we as a school system give you everything you need to change the world, to reach the vision that you have?’” Cochrane said.

Throughout his transition, the Board of Education has played its part in ensuring that Cochrane has a smooth and quick adjustment to the district and his new job. “The Board is being very supportive and helping Mr. Cochrane make connections in the community. We are giving him time to get the lay of the land, to figure out what we’re all about, [and] providing an environment where he can … learn,” Board President Timothy Quinn said.

“My specific interactions with Mr. Cochrane were at committee meetings where he jumped right in without missing a beat … He has responded thoroughly and quickly to any issues that may have arisen,” Board member Martha Land said.

Land said Cochrane has met members of almost every part of the community, ranging from administrators to religious leaders. “He [wants] to learn their thoughts and hopes for the future [of the district],” she said.

Many other people in the area who are involved with PPS have also been helping Cochrane make the transition. “There are so many people …  whether it’s the supervisors, principals, [or] the parents, [who] are able to offer really valuable wisdom and perspective on whatever issues we’re facing,” Cochrane said.

Snyder has played a large part in Cochrane’s introduction to the district, and the two are in constant communication. “Any time he has needed to learn something about the high school and the things that we do, I help to explain,” Snyder said. “[Considering] the sheer number of topics that one has to be aware of and knowledgeable about, … it’s hard to know it all.”

Assistant Superintendent Bonnie Lehet discussed the difficulties of Cochrane’s job, particularly as compared to that of other staff members. “The job of the supervisor, I think, is very complex. Teachers deal with students, but superintendents deal with everybody, … so it’s difficult,” she said. “I’m trying to help him see things that he doesn’t already see. He might have [historical] questions, [and] I have a sense of the progression.”

John Anagbo, the supervisor of language arts at PHS, is also softening the transition for Cochrane with the help of Reynold Forman, supervisor of language arts for Pre-K–8. “He’s listening to us and asking questions, which I think is a very wonderful thing for any leader,” Anagbo said. “We have our vision that we are trying to bring to him, but we don’t want to bring everything out at once, so we’ll lay those things out at the appropriate time.”

Throughout his transition, Cochrane has been trying to absorb as much information as possible from the people he meets. “My days are filled with meeting lots and lots of different people, having great conversations, learning a lot about this district and the vision that people have for it, what they’d like to see happen—and then occasionally watching the Weather Channel,” he said.

Although Cochrane is making efforts to acquaint himself with the school district, the Princeton University alumnus was already familiar with the Princeton area prior to his superintendency. Previously, he worked at the university as an admissions officer and as assistant dean of students. This prior familiarity with the town was taken into consideration in the application process.

“The fact that Mr. Cochrane was living here, … had attended the university, [and has] strong ties to the Princeton community was certainly a plus,” Quinn said.

Quinn said that Cochrane was quickly identified as a potential candidate for the new superintendent position. Cochrane was one of over 50 applicants, and his appointment was officially confirmed in early October.

“It became apparent early [on] … that Mr. Cochrane was the standout in a strong field [of applicants] … due to his experience, his keen intellect, his thoughtfulness, [and] communication style,” said Quinn.

Lehet elaborated on Cochrane’s qualities, particularly his intellect. “The word that I would use [to describe Cochrane] is brilliant,” said Lehet. “He is able to make a connection and … put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

Snyder reflected on the Board members’ search process for a new superintendent. “I think [their] work has paid off, in that Mr. Cochrane is a good fit for the district, his thinking and his ideas don’t seem to be drastically different [from those of former Superintendent Judith A. Wilson, and] he came in with knowledge of the district, which I think has made the adjustment easier for him,” he said.

So far, Cochrane is feeling positive about his first few weeks as superintendent and is looking forward to everything else that is to come. “I feel like I really am getting a feel for the district. I’m looking forward to having more of those conversations with students, so that’s the important piece for me right now,” he said. “My plan is to … meet with the Board and … sort of craft a vision for the next steps and for the future of the school district. So that part has been wonderful.”