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Laura Austin Photo Principal of Alternative Education John Cosner relishes his new roles / Laura Austin Photo

Cosner new principal at Mesquite High

By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer–        The News Review set out to write a story about John Cosner being appointed the new Principal at Mesquite Continuation High School; however, we learned his role is much more extensive than that. His new title is Principal of Alternative Education for Sierra Sands Unified School District (SSUSD). Under this umbrella, he has many titles and unique responsibilities. The first is Principal of Mesquite Continuation High School. He also heads  Independent Study, Credit Recovery, Summer School, and Adult School.

Cosner tells us, “Jo Anne McClellan, my predecessor, just retired. She had to create from whole cloth a lot of the systems that we’re now using, I’m finding myself retooling them and making them my own.”

He was reinvigorated when the new Superintendent of SSUSD, Dr. April Moore, held a retreat for the leadership team. “One of the things that came out was very validating. There was a common theme of what brought each of us to education specifically. The recognition that we could see the fruits of our labor make a positive impact on the lives of those around us. And I recognized that’s the thing that prompts me. What I’m looking forward to most this year is being able to watch these young adults come to fruition of what they can see themselves to be for the rest of their lives in a way they had not been able to before.”

The bulk of Cosner’s new job is as Principal of Mesquite. “Continuation schools are classically known to be a challenge,” he says. “These are the individuals whom the system would have otherwise failed; for whatever reason, things aren’t working for them. And so this is kind of the catch-all. This is kind of our last opportunity. These are students who would have dropped out of high school and never earned their diplomas.

Austin Strahl, an 11th grader at Mesquite High School, talks to new Principal John Cosner about his aspirations for the future. / Laura Austin Photo

“I tend to be very systems oriented. I’m kind of a resident nerd. One of the things I try to do is make our modern technological systems work for us to get some of the busy work out of the way — so we can focus on the powerful things that humans do, which is people being with people. There’s so much accountability paperwork that has to be done in today’s society that I want to automate or semi-automate as much as that as possible to leverage the professionals’ time being spent in the best place, which is with kids, that positive engagement.”

As Head of Independent Study, he oversees a program that serves the following students:  “Students who are able to work independently, and primarily are working remotely and are still Sierra Sands students; whether it be an elementary school kid at Inyokern or a middle school kid at Monroe, or a high school kid at Burroughs, they’re still our kid. But they happen to be following a very specific curriculum that’s comparable to their school curriculum. And they’re doing it in a remote setting with a teacher under independent study.”

He explains his role as Head of Credit Recovery, “During the evenings, twice a year in the fall and in the spring semester, we have a series of weeks where we have students working with teachers to make up coursework. They’re playing catch-up before they have to come to Mesquite. For example, let’s say they’re freshmen, and they failed a class or two, they can still make that up. So they don’t have to find a way to squeeze it into their schedule.

“Summer School is kind of like Credit Recovery but happens during the summer. It’s running more classically in the morning rather than in the evening, and it runs for shorter weeks but longer days.

“And then the last one is Adult School. People who have passed their graduation time frame but want to come back to earn their high school diploma. Usually, they take one course at a time with one of our teachers. Oftentimes, they choose to do it remotely. We have some online programs that they can work through, and they come in for support or tutoring or proctored assessments.” A proctored assessment is course test taking with a staff member present to add validity in comparison to taking the test unsupervised in their home.

Cosner is a product of SSUSD. “I grew up in Inyokern and went through elementary school there, I went to old Murray when it was on Base. I graduated from high school from Burroughs and went to Cal State Los Angeles for my undergrad. I came back while I was applying to med schools and got talked into teaching by Ernie Bell, my former principal, and fell in love with education.

“I had originally thought I wanted to go into pediatrics, make a difference in the lives of young people. When I started working with high school-aged kids, I realized the depth of inspiration I felt, the connection I could make with kids and the difference I could make in their lives. I thought, ‘Wow! People are going to pay me for this.” I fell in love with the career and started off teaching special education, and the chemistry teacher retired. I took over for him, you know, I got to blow stuff up for ten years.

“Then I became an Assistant Principal at Murray, working under Kirsti Smith. She’s another institution in our district. She was a principal for 20 years at Murray and she helped start the new Murray when it transferred off Base. She got to work under her tenure for three years there. Then they asked me to serve at Pierce Elementary. So I served there a year as principal. And then, there were some specific challenges at James Monroe at that time that the district administration thought that I could come to make some effective changes. And I loved my time there. Some of the kindest, most welcoming staff.”

During his time at Monroe, he worked on a systematic approach to reducing suspensions. “We’re recognizing that while suspension is a tool for instruction and probably a necessary piece, however, no one wants to punish a kid. But when all other means fail, you have to create space between those who are harming others and those who are being harmed.” The infrastructure that was created has shown an impressive reduction in suspensions now that it has been in place for three years and kids have experienced the approach throughout their middle school experience. “You have that fresh set that only know the new way, they are now able to adequately rise to the expectation. So suspensions were cut in half last year.”

Last year Cosner returned to Murray for one year as an Assistant Principal. “They hired about 11 new teachers that year. And so there was just a lot of instability. They wanted somebody with the principal middle school experience. So they asked me to change. It was kind of a lateral change for me, but they recognized that they needed somebody who had that skill set to kind of bring some stability.”

Cosner appreciates his role at Mesquite. ‘It is a unique institution. One of the things that I love about the culture of Mesquite is it tends to be filled with students. For whatever reason, be it life, academics, work, or any number of things that haven’t worked for them, the confluence of events has been a struggle. And the beauty of it is, they’ve come to a place where they’re ready to turn things around.

“Regardless of what brought them here, most of them find an adult to connect with to find success in a way they may not have before and realize they have a path forward. One of the ways they’re able to capture that is slightly smaller class sizes and a different structure. So kids can accelerate through the curriculum they’ve missed to bring them back up to speed. It doesn’t necessarily allow them to graduate early, but it allows people who are far behind to catch up.

“The nature of a continuation school is we have some flexibility to allow people to earn more credit because a lot of them are now working, either minors or just turning 18, and trying to get their high school diploma before the end of their 18th year, and they can accumulate some credits in a little bit of faster or a different rate.”

Wearing several hats looks like a lot to juggle. But Cosner embraces the responsibilities and relishes his new role.