EVERETT — Superintendent Gary Cohn, who has led the Everett School District through a decade of growth and change, will retire at the end of the school year.
During that time, the district’s on-time graduation rate improved from 81.7 percent to 95.7 percent.
“We are figuring out ways to help kids get across the line,” Cohn said Friday.
At the same time, there has been a steady increase in the number of students taking college-level Advanced Placement classes and exams as well as College in the High School courses. World language enrollment has more than doubled.
Cohn, who was named the state’s superintendent of the year in 2016, announced his plans to retire effective June 30 to staff on Friday morning.
Cohn, 63, is retiring after 39 years in education. He arrived in Everett after a stint as superintendent in Port Angeles. He also was vice president at Lake Washington Technical College, where he worked for 10 years. He’d been an administrator for the Lake Washington School District and taught business and marketing in the Northshore School District in the early 1980s.
School board President Carol Andrews said Cohn has an ability to accomplish big goals while paying close attention to small details.
“With Gary’s leadership, we are working toward graduation starting in preschool,” she said. “We are working toward graduation during expansive summer school. We have a voter-approved plan to make sure each student has access to learning technology in the next three years. We are whittling away at the achievement gaps between different demographic groups so each student aspires to graduation.”
The makeup of students in the district has changed dramatically in the 10 years 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, according to the Center for Educational Excellence.
“Everett is the only district of 6,000 or more students in the state in which every school outperforms what the statistics project based upon poverty levels in our schools,” Andrews said.
Jared Kink, president of the Everett Education Association, said Cohn’s “strong leadership” has moved the district forward “in a way we call the ‘Everett Way’.”
“He came in after a very tumultuous time. He steadied the ship and took Everett to a whole ’nother level for the kids, the employees and the community,” Kink said.
There have been disagreements in the six years Kink has led the roughly 1,000-member teacher union, a period coinciding with an overhaul of public school funding due to the McCleary decision.
“But we’ve always been able to find common ground and shared values,” he said. “We have the best teachers because we have the best and strongest contract in the state. And that leads to great things for the kids and the community.”
Cohn said the district at all levels has worked hard to focus on key priorities to improve student learning.
In an email to staff Friday morning, he wrote: “Little things make a big impact: a simple act of kindness like a custodian opening a door on a cold morning, a food and nutrition staff member serving a smile with a salad, a paraeducator helping calm a nervous child, an office staffer helping find a tissue for a runny nose, a bus driver with the first and last smile of the day, a groundskeeper removing winter leaves so spring tulips shine, a bright, friendly voice on the phone, a quick and thorough response to an email inquiry, a principal welcoming a new family, and a teacher making time to ‘high five’ every student who enters the door.”
He also told co-workers: “Of all that I’ve done in other places, in concert with other wonderful colleagues, I will forever be most proud of what we’ve accomplished together here in the last decade as we acted upon our core values of learning, equity, integrity, passion, respect, diversity and collaboration.”
Cohn didn’t initially pursue a career in education. In the 1970s, he was selling computers when he went to visit a teacher at his alma mater, Mercer Island High School. That instructor gave him a nudge toward teaching.
With Cohn’s announcement Friday, the district now must replace two high-ranking leaders.
Earlier, Deputy Superintendent Joyce Stewart announced she will retire at the end of the school year after two decades with the district.
Paul Sjunnesen, who was Everett’s superintendent from 1987 to 1992, recommended Cohn for the job in 2008 when a school board member called him asking for suggestions. Cohn took a graduate level class in school finance from Sjunnesen.
“He was very good, very bright and very articulate,” Sjunnesen said. “He called me a couple of times for advice after that. I encouraged him to move toward becoming a superintendent because of his ability and his willingness to work like hell.”
Sjunnesen said he believes the district made the right choice 10 years ago.
“I think he has been outstanding,” he said. “I think the district has made great progress with him.”
State Rep. John Lovick remembered during his tenure as Snohomish County sheriff meeting Cohn for the first time. It was shortly after Cohn had been named Everett superintendent and the new hire made an appointment. They talked for an hour. Lovick said Cohn asked for ways to help in the community and pledged to be involved.
“He stuck to his word,” Lovick said. “I would see him everywhere.”
They’d bump into each other at NAACP events and a youth development program through Everett Community College.
“He didn’t just show up to listen to the speeches, shake a hand and get a picture taken,” Lovick said. “He stayed to the end.”
Cohn said he wished he could have seen the district pass a bond measure to help with overcrowding at schools in the south end of the district. He also had hoped to see integrated Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs at individual high schools take root. He talks about his desire to see an early learning center open as well as one for building trades.
“They are definitely not overnight things,” he said.
In retirement, Cohn said he intends to spend more time with his wife, including traveling, golf and piano lessons.
“We are going to be seriously looking for another golden retriever,” he said.
And when it comes to golf, he is eager to hit the links with a familiar partner.
“My dad is 92 this May,” he said. “He can’t wait for me to play golf with him.”
Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.