November 22, 2006

Commentary:

A School Leader with the Soul of a Playwright

By Ernie McCray

Ah, it’s so refreshing having a man like Carl Cohn as head of our schools. A while back two dear friends of mine from the Playwrights Project and I met with him regarding restoring the levels of involvement we once enjoyed in San Diego City Schools.

It was so gratifying sitting across from a man who appreciated our history, our years of sponsoring the California Young Playwrights annual contest and then producing the winning plays at the Old Globe - our years of conducting exciting classroom programs and helping educators grow as teaching artists.

As we discussed with him how we use drama to help young people evolve as creative deep thinking literate human beings, I could sense in his words and his posture that this is a man who is deeply committed to the arts.

Here we were after years of having our offerings to students pared down to practically no involvement being welcomed with open arms. Here a man leaned towards us as we spoke and directed us to others in the system who could assist us in our passionate dedication to simply helping children learn.

And not too long ago I sat a little behind and to the side of Carl Cohn as we watched, along with the kids at Longfellow Elementary, “Lost in Words,” the Playwrights Project’s touring play. I watched him as he gauged the students’ focused attention on the story’s hero, an ambitious Mexican teenager who plunges into a new culture, school and language and overcomes the challenges facing her and her family. In his smile I could see his respect for the well thought out questions they asked and the innocent poignant statements they made after the performance.

His actions spoke volumes to me, letting me know that my first impressions of him, regarding the arts, were right on. His actions said to me that the man who leads our school system understands that it’s through the arts that we get at the essence of a child, at who he or she is as a human being. His actions said to me that he is of the philosophy that the more that is known about each learner, the more likely their learning needs will be met.

I love the man. He has the soul of a playwright. Like a playwright often does, he’s taken a story that had already begun, a story where all seemed lost, where hope was nowhere to be seen, where talented and interested people were being left out, having few to no opportunities to make a suggestion or promote an idea that might enrich the learning environment in their schools - from such a beginning he has gradually taken the story in another direction, healing the pain and inspiring hope, weaving a happy ending wherein those who had once been abandoned are now embraced and encouraged.

Like many good playwrights often do Carl Cohn is allowing the players, the actors, to bring their special approach to the story so that it can be as rich a performance as possible. Based on what I’ve seen up close and personal and what I’ve heard in a number of conversations throughout the city, more and more teachers and parents and students and community members at large who have much to offer are being given a chance to actively participate in creating a dynamic school system.

And he’s directing the show with care, with love, painting a pretty picture of a school system becoming all it can be. What a hopeful drama for our children.

Ernie McCray is a retired Principal from San Diego Unified School District.

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