Steven Cochrane, superintendent of Princeton Public Schools, spent much of his first months on the job reaching out to the community.
By Scott Morgan

Princeton Public Schools superintendent Stephen Cochrane readies for first full year at the helm

When charged with shaping the minds of young students in the Princeton Public Schools system, how did new superintendent make sure the district stays a beacon of knowledge that will lead a positive tomorrow? He started by listening.

Back in January, when Stephen Cochrane took over as the district superintendent upon the retirement of Judith Wilson, he took the oft-shunned path of embarking on what he calls a listening tour.

“I think there’s a tendency among new leaders to sort of come in and leave their mark,” Cochrane said.

He opted, instead, to sit down with everyone he could and hear what their ideas were about how to make Princeton Public Schools a “lighthouse district.”

Turns out, “everyone he could find” was pretty much everybody.

Before he came to Princeton, Cochrane was an assistant superintendent of curriculum in the Upper Freehold Regional School District. And while he liked the people there, he said his biggest (and best) surprise coming to Princeton was just how involved everyone in the community is about education, and how much they all want to see the school district uphold the Princeton name when it comes to learning.

Everyone from the mayor to the librarians, he said, want to ensure the school district’s place on the top of the mountain.

During that communications process, the School Board and its members Board of Education were supportive of Cochrane’s efforts to 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,” said Board President Tim Quinn, shortly after Cochrane was hired.

Cochrane said that what he found out from all that listening is that there’s a lot of work ahead, especially as Cochrane sees it as the district’s mission to prepare its students to change the world.

“I know that might sound idealistic,” he said, “but it could mean that they change the world at large, or change the world in their class or school. We want to empower them to create change wherever they are.”

Getting to such lofty heights requires an understanding of what’s really important. There are the standardized tests, yes — updated ones of which are coming this year — and Cochrane will oversee new metrics designed to grade teacher performance based on testing and student output.

But what’s really important goes far beyond the knowledge displayed on a test. The really important things are “those things that are not so easily measured,” he said. In other words, character qualities.

Success, you see, is no one thing. It’s easy to get caught up in tangible trophies and to chase elusive perfection. But success means something different to everyone, Cochrane said. Perhaps success for one student is to make it to Harvard some day.

For another, it might be to start a small business. For others something entirely different. Character comes into play through the idea that no matter what a child’s definition of success is or will be, every child needs to be prepared to meet the challenges and goals his or her pursuit of success will bring.

Cochrane speaks of a lot of “C” qualities — curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, cultural awareness — but there are other letters of the alphabet represented in his menu of qualities too.

The ability to listen and ask great questions, leadership, and, of major importance, resilience in the face of challenges and failures are big numbers on Cochrane’s hit parade. The biggest is one more C word: Compassion.

See, despite Princeton being synonymous with top-notch education, not everyone in town is playing the same hand. Cochrane cites a phrase from New Zealand: There are 10-book children and 1,000-book children. In other words, those who come into kindergarten having been exposed to very little, and those who come in having been exposed to many levels of learning and culture, from books to museums.

Compassion is required to find a way to turn every child into a 1,000-book child, to expose them all to the same opportunities, and to make them all feel as if they have an equal chance, Cochrane said. It’s part of his three-pronged plan of action for the district in the coming years, to make sure that every child is known and able to connect with the warehouse of opportunities there are out there.

The other components are the character qualities (and how to teach them) and to create an environment in which children and teachers feel free to try new ideas and approaches. In the Venn diagram of education, where the circles overlap, Cochrane sees the ideal place for education.

“In that center is where schools really flourish,” he said.

Getting there will be tricky, of course. In a place like Princeton, extra vigilance is needed to ensure that the gap between the 10-book children and the 1,000-book children — which all districts have to deal with to some degree — is closed, and preferably sealed over with nice thick layer of concrete. Key to getting there, Cochrane said, is to remind kids that there is more than one way to succeed, and that no one gets to success entirely on their own.

Much of this philosophy comes from Cochrane’s non-educational passion, competitive cycling. Born and raised near Seattle, where his father was a Episcopal bishop and where his mother still lives, Cochrane played football and tennis throughout his school life.

He came to Princeton at age 17 to attend the university, thinking he was going to chase a degree in politics from the Woodrow Wilson School. Instead, he ended up getting a bachelor’s in English literature in 1981.

He also got a knee injury that sidelined much of his sports life. But a roommate and friend was really into triathlons and cycling and got the early-20s Cochrane into the sport of cycling. What he found is that, much against what many people think, cycling is every inch a team sport.

“In cycling, you never win as an individual,” he said. Like race car drivers or birds in formation, team members move in formations that allow the leader to set the pace and the others to “draft” behind them.

The important thing to remember here is that the leader keeps changing. Everyone gets a chance to lead and to follow; to set the pace and to move in the wake of the leader. And everyone learns about perseverance.

This teamwork angle has served Cochrane well in his career. After he graduated from Princeton, he worked for the university’s admissions department, where he toured the country to speak on the value of a broad liberal arts education.

In 1984 he went to Harvard to get his master’s in education. While in Boston, he went to work as a residence director at Wheelock College, which specializes in training teachers for early childhood education. His touring changed to one about the importance of teaching children at a very young age.

In 1985 Cochrane returned to Princeton University as an associate dean of admissions. He liked his job, but felt an unusual pang. He felt that he could effect more positive change if he got to children while they were “at the beginning of their education, not at the end of it.”

So at age 30, he made what he said is his best and most naïve decision ever — quit a plum Ivy League job to become an elementary school teacher in South Brunswick.

“I thought, ‘How hard can it be to teach a bunch of 9- and 10-year-olds?’” he said. You may laugh at his naïveté, he’s aware now of how that sounds. The point is, he got help from his colleagues and honed his craft.

Eventually he worked his way up to elementary school and middle school principal before taking on the assistant superintendent position in Upper Freehold.

According to the Princeton School Board, Cochrane was an obvious choice, given that his record in the Upper Freehold district involved implementing new K-8 reading, writing, and mathematics programs, new electives in the middle school, and expanded AP offerings at Allentown High School.

“It was clear from a visit by members of our board to Upper Freehold Regional that Cochrane is a transformational leader who was universally respected by all stakeholders,” said Andrea Spalla, vice president of the Princeton school board, in a press release at the time Cochrane took over.

Now, about that “lighthouse district” metaphor … Cochrane knows that the district represents one of the world’s most important names in education. And he wants Princeton Public Schools to be as much of a metaphorical lighthouse for other districts as possible — a strong tower of strength that can guide its students and other districts.

And it’s not just that he wants that, it’s that, really, there isn’t much choice. “Whether we like it or not, people are looking at us,” he said. “We have to be sure we’re sending the right message.”