Superintendent Stephen Cochrane began in the Princeton Public School district almost exactly one year ago. He has spent the past months building relationships with teachers, administrators, students, and parents through collaborating with them and listening to their comments and ideas for the district. As he nears the end of his first year, the Tower checked in again on how his original goals are progressing, changing, and developing.
Cochrane spends much of his time going between schools in the district, trying to meet and create ties with the staff and students. “I’m most grateful for … the opportunity I had to … begin to build relationships with everyone involved in the Princeton Public Schools,” said Cochrane. “That includes the teachers and administrators, all of our support workers, bus drivers, custodians, building and grounds crew, … and then students.”
Creating partnerships with community organizations was a goal that Cochrane set in January and has been pursuing throughout the school year. Several groups, such as Westminster Choir College, the Princeton Education Foundation, and Corner House, have been meeting with Cochrane to set the agenda for future partnerships.
In doing this, Cochrane realized that these collaborations have benefited the organizations as well as the schools. “A lot of our community partners are actually doing similar work but may not be connected with one another,” he said, “and the schools can provide that means of connecting [these] groups.”
Cochrane stressed that it is vital for him to listen to what others have to say about issues of and ideas for the district. “Leadership is first about listening and second about acting,” he said. “It’s really listening to what people are saying, what their hopes and dreams are, and then figuring out a course of action based on that … and to craft from that a kind of vision framework.”
He has created a Venn diagram of his three main themes: “measuring what matters,” “every child known,” and “innovation and experimentation.” “School districts really thrive and flourish in the intersection of all of those,” Cochrane said.
Theme one: measuring what matters
The first of Cochrane’s core themes is identifying the important aspects of school life and growth. “One [theme] was a focus on measuring what matters,” said Cochrane. “So, yes it’s important that we measure how students perform on SATs, or the new PARCC test, or NJ ASK, but there’s much more to your lives as students that’s meaningful beyond getting into a good college.”
Instead of evaluating solely based on test scores, the district also wants to place an emphasis on students getting the most out of the schools, such as through the development of character, morals, and life skills. “It has to do with living a life of joy and purpose; it has to do with following passions; it has to do with creativity and collaboration and effective communication and … with developing character and compassion,” Cochrane said.
Theme two: every child known
Another important goal of the district in the past and coming years was to make sure that all students in PPS are connected to their school environment. “Theme two was ‘every child known and connected’—every student connected to a caring adult, connected to one another, connected to community partners,” said Cochrane.
For this reason, Cochrane has been meeting with focus groups of students to discuss school topics like drugs and alcohol, nutrition, and stress.
The concept of “every child known” ensures that students do not feel abandoned and that their potentials and talents are all recognized. “[This theme] helps us not only with … learning, because we know what [students are] interested in … but it also means that [they’re] going to feel more connected with the learning and with the school system,” Cochrane said.
Cochrane hopes this theme will make the district a more engaging environment for students across the board. “We can help you follow your passions and tailor instruction to what is engaging for you,” he said.
Theme three: innovation and experimentation
In the last year, the district also has begun to emphasize the concepts of development of new ideas and experimentation. “The third theme was innovation and experimentation—just the freedom to try new things without a fear of failure,” said Cochrane. “[We want] to have a district that’s open to experimenting in new ways to new approaches of learning and to have a culture in the school where students are feeling the freedom to try new ideas.”
Attendance at student events
Cochrane believes that one of the most important parts of a school district is the voices of the students, expressed most clearly at the various student events. “[Some] of the things to me that really stand out [are] student voices as expressed through the focus groups, one-on-one conversations … student voices through the music and theater [and] student voices through something like debate,” he said. “I’ve just been blown away … [by] the professional quality of the voices that resonate onstage.”
There was one event, however, that really stood out for Cochrane during his first year as superintendent. “One of the memorable moments for me was really the student voices that occurred during that Friday night [homecoming] football game … It was an event that I thought epitomized the very best about the Princeton Public Schools,” he said. “Yes, it was about a football team that had gone from 0–10 to winning … but also [about] the student voices in the crowd … the support that students had for each other.”
Cochrane plans to maintain PPS’s reputation across the nation as a model and “mentor” school district. “Princeton is always a district that other places look to,” said Cochrane. “[On December 4], Livingston School District, a very good school district up in northern New Jersey, [came] to visit us to see what we’re doing.”
A lot of Cochrane’s job in terms of making Princeton a lighthouse district for the nation is simply sustaining and maintaining the image and ideology that has brought PPS this far. “For us, it’s a question of keeping a focus on those things that truly matter in a climate where … there’s a push towards testing and accountability,” he said.
Another part of maintaining PPS as a lighthouse district is continuing to offer unique programs that cannot be found in most public school districts in the nation.“The things that we’re doing … outside of school, all the performances, the clubs, the world language program, the visits to Italy, and to China, to France—those are things that help us stand out,” said Cochrane. “[So does] the fact that we’re teaching Mandarin here [and] that we’re looking at dual-language immersion for next year at one of our elementary schools, where the kids will be taught half in English, half in Spanish.”
The combination of these opportunities and the general hardworking atmosphere of PPS all contribute to the “lighthouse” nature of the district, said Cochrane. “I think that puts us on the cutting edge,” he said.
Teacher contract negotiation
A significant issue that Cochrane has faced during the past year is the ongoing teacher contract negotiations. “Even while there’s a … strong desire to provide teachers with a salary and a compensation package that is respectful and affirms their value, there’s also a desire to maintain the class sizes and the incredible program offerings that we have here in the Princeton Public Schools,” he said. “And it’s trying to achieve both of those things … that provides the tension in the process.”
Cochrane also noted that the school district must look forward to the incoming students to shape the district in the right direction. “So moving forward … we want to be able to put more money in the budget for new teachers, be able to maintain programs,” he said. “I want to make sure that long-term, ten years down the road, we can support, financially, all of the things that [we] currently have.”
Racing his bike
In January, Cochrane expressed a desire to continue racing his bike, even with his new job. “I actually was able to compete in a few races and maintain a little bit of an edge,” he said. “I spent a lot of time training, actually late at night in my basement as opposed to out on the road, sometimes after meetings, but I was able to enjoy that.”