EVERETT — On Wednesday mornings, Superintendent Gary Cohn skips coming into office and instead visits one of the Everett School District’s 26 schools.
“I try to set aside a chunk of the day to walk through the schools,” Cohn said.
Those visits have kept him in touch with teachers, students, custodians and computer-savvy kindergartners.
“You’ve got to do that to stay close to the knitting,” he said.
In the 10 years that Cohn has been superintendent, the school district’s on-time high school graduation rate improved from 82 percent to 96 percent.
“I didn’t do it by myself,” he said. Without the district’s dedicated staff, “you don’t get those numbers.”
Cohn, who is retiring at the end of June, was named the 2017 state superintendent of the year.
He’ll take home another accolade this month, the Elson S. Floyd Award, named for the Washington State University president who played a key role in establishing the WSU Everett campus. The award by Economic Alliance Snohomish County honors a visionary leader who through partnership, tenacity and a strong commitment to community has created lasting opportunities, especially for those who have traditionally been underserved.
The award, first given in 2017, will be presented at the alliance’s eighth annual meeting and awards celebration May 23 at the Tulalip Resort Casino.
John Dickson, chief operations officer at Coastal Community Bank, nominated Cohn for the honor and noted that under his watch “the district has increased graduation rates, increased and maintained test scores above the state averages, all while keeping the district fiscally stable.”
The makeup of students in the district has changed dramatically over the time Cohn has been superintendent.
More students come from homes where English is a second language. At the same time, low-income students are defying expectations.
The number of students taking college-level Advanced Placement classes has risen. World language enrollment has more than doubled.
One of Cohn’s priorities has been to eliminate barriers to student success — whether that means paying a student’s AP test fees or bringing health services into the schools.
However, education doesn’t stop when students graduate from high school. “That shouldn’t be the goal,” Cohn said.
“We really need to help kids look beyond high school. We want them to have family-wage jobs and have fulfilling lives,” Cohn said.
To advance those goals, the school district has partnered with the Rotary Club of Everett, Everett Community College and other institutions to introduce students to college and other post-secondary options, starting when they’re in elementary or middle school.
According to Washington Roundtable, the nonprofit public policy group, fewer and fewer jobs in the state will be available to those with only a high school diploma. Further, of the more than half-million jobs that will open up in the next few years, more than two-thirds will require post-secondary education, such as college, trade or technical training, or apprenticeships.
“We want to prepare the way for kids to be college or career or military service-ready,” Cohn said.
To illustrate the point, Cohn harkens back to his track-and-field days.
“I remember my junior high coach telling me, ‘Gary, if you run up to the finish line and stop, you’ll never win a race,’” he said.
“I tell kids, ‘Pick a point beyond the finish line and run for that point.’”