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Alumnus Cochrane ’81 becomes Princeton Public Schools superintendent

The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education appointed Stephen Cochrane ’81 superintendent of Princeton Public Schools earlier this month. He is a current assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at the Upper Freehold Regional District.

Cochrane said he discovered his passion for teaching early on in his career, while working at Wheelock College, a private college in Boston that focuses on education and social work.

“Except for my time at Harvard, I have lived in Princeton since I was 17 years old,” he explained. “I have a desire to give back to the Princeton community and to the children of this community.”

He added that he hopes in the course of his four-and-a-half year contract to help bridge achievement gaps and to build PPS into a “lighthouse district” for other schools around the nation.

After graduating as an English major, Cochrane worked as an admission officer at the University from 1981 to 1984 and routinely spoke to high school students about the value of higher education.

After Cochrane earned a master’s degree in education at Harvard Graduate School and served as residence director at Wheelock College, he accepted the position of associate dean of admissions in 1985. The job allowed him to travel the country to speak about the importance of working with young children.

“I really became enamored with the mission of this college and the work that most of these young women were putting into working with these young kids,” Cochrane said of his time at Wheelock, when the student body was predominantly female.

He began working as Princeton’s assistant dean of students in 1987.

“I jumped at the chance of working with students back at West College,” Cochrane said. “But the whole time I was working there, I kept thinking how I could be making a bigger difference in the lives of students, working at the beginning of the educational process instead of at the end.”

Cochrane worked with residential college advisors, handled eating club and housing issues and worked with students with disabilities before the University had created the Office of Disability Services, according to Kathleen Deignan, the current dean of undergraduate students.

“When he was here, he was extremely well-liked. He was energetic, someone who the students were very fond of and we know that he said when he did step down, it was because he wanted to make a bigger impact at a public school level,” Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students department manager Janine Calogero said, speaking for Deignan. “He’s a devoted educator who I am sure will be a terrific superintendent of schools.”

In what he calls the most naive and important decision of his life, Cochrane left the position of assistant dean  in 1990 to teach elementary school in South Brunswick, N.J.

“For the first time in my life, I thought I would fail at something,” he said. “I [initially] thought, ‘how hard could teaching nine- and 10-year-olds be?’ I have never forgotten how difficult it is to be a great teacher. Being a mediocre teacher is not that hard.”

Cochrane, now 53, never looked back. When asked how his experience and time at Princeton University impacted his work, he said: “I really think about that motto, ‘Princeton in the Nation’s Service.’” He explained  that he was inspired by former University president William Bowen GS ’58, who emphasized the importance of K-12 education.

“Teaching first-graders reading is rocket science. It is hard work,” Cochrane said. “I don’t think people realize that.”

Cochrane added that he thinks more Princetonians should consider teaching as a career.

“There’s this judgment made that teaching elementary school is babysitting, and not using that Princeton University education the way it should be used,” he said. “The University does teach you to think flexibly and give you knowledge in a wide variety of areas. It prepares you to look beyond just what you’re doing in the classroom to how you can help improve the system of education. Any time we can take smart, talented, mission-oriented Princeton students and put them in front of kids, we can make an impact.”

Cochrane said he would like to see teacher preparation refined at the national level and made more similar to the medical field, with longer residencies and preparation periods.

“Being smart doesn’t mean you’re prepared to deal with all the management issues that come with a classroom of over 30 kids,” he said. “It was not the academic content that overwhelmed me, but all the decisions: trying to figure out when kids were sharpening their pencils. Teachers make almost 2,000 decisions a day.”

Cochrane called the concept of programs such as Teach for America, one proposed by Wendy Kopp ’89 in her undergraduate senior thesis, “amazing.”  He also said he is thrilled that the University now offers a Program in Teacher Preparation.

Working his way up from his teaching post, Cochrane served as principal of Hopewell Elementary School from 1994 to 2001, then of Timberlane Middle School from 2001 to 2004. Cochrane transitioned in 2004 to director of curriculum and instruction at Colts Neck Township Schools, N.J., and finally to the position he holds now as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Upper Freehold Regional District in 2007.

“I remember talking with lots of my former classmates at Princeton, about what we’re doing with our lives. Many of them were working on Wall Street, making ten times what I was making. But there wasn’t a single one of my classmates who wasn’t absolutely supportive to the point of almost being jealous of my life, to be doing something meaningful and making a difference in the world,” he said.

Judith Wilson, the current superintendent of Princeton Public Schools, announced her decision to retire in March 2013.

“You have to be careful as a new leader coming into an institution,” Cochrane noted. “My goal is to listen to people and collaboratively create a vision for Princeton Public Schools.”

The economic, cultural and racial diversity of Princeton Township and high aspirations of the Princeton school board attracted him to this position, Cochrane said.

“Princeton has both the resources and the challenges to make it a model, to serve as a lighthouse district, for many districts across the country. The other goal that Princeton has is to focus on the whole child, to allow all these kids to graduate happy, to have balance in their lives,” Cochrane explained. “It’s not just about getting into the best college or that high-paying job. It’s to lead a life with purpose and joy. These are the principles which we must inculcate, and inculcate early.”

Lewis Goldstein, assistant superintendent for human resources, public information and community relations at Princeton Public Schools, praised Cochrane’s leadership ability.

“Stephen is a very smart guy. He’s well informed in instructional pedagogy. We had a very strong pool of candidates, but Stephen stood out. He’s a great leader,” Goldstein said.

Regarding the rigorous Common Core State Standards that New Jersey has adopted, Cochrane noted the importance of staying focused on more than just grades.

“There’s a whole new teacher evaluation protocol that ties teachers’ work to test results … But the best districts are the ones who are looking beyond the storm to the other issues that need to be addressed,” Cochrane explained. “The ability to be curious, to problem solve, to think critically — those are the kinds of skills that every district is trying to address in order to close the achievement gap and prepare kids to be successful in a very complex global society, not just to get high test scores.”

Cochrane will start in his new position on Jan. 1.

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