In the face of "uncommon change," Mike Cowan will take the reins of leadership in Arizona's largest school district in July.
His advancement in the Mesa Unified School District - from grade-school teacher to science specialist to program director to associate superintendent to superintendent - is represented in the hundreds of books that line the shelves of his downtown Mesa office.
Among the titles: "The Sandbox Investment," "Llama Llama Mad at Mama," "Schools That Learn," "Fire Them Up" and "The Superintendent as CEO."
Cowan and his wife, Amy, married in college. They have four sons. One, a student at Mesa Community College, plans to become a physical education teacher. Their second-oldest leaves next week on a mission for their church. Another is a student at Mountain View High School and a member of the choir and track team. Their youngest is a student at Poston Junior High School.
All have attended Mesa district schools and all have a variety of interests, from the engineering of sound and creation of musical instruments to vocal music and running track.
"I don't know where he got that from," Cowan said of one son's passion to run.
The musical interest of his boys is easier to answer: Cowan sang in choirs growing up, and his wife is a private piano instructor. One of their children taught himself how to play the guitar just by watching videos on the Internet.
Cowan said that while neither of his parents had college degrees when he was growing up in Huntington Beach, Calif., education was always the emphasis, and the expectation. "When the report card came, it wasn't, 'How many A's and B's did you get?' but, 'Did you try your hardest?'" Cowan said.
His sister is a schoolteacher. His dad went back to school late in life and finished a college degree.
Cowan declared education as a major at BYU, even after roommates urged him to study something else.
He said he once came home from class to find his five roommates declaring an "intervention." They were concerned about Cowan's career choice. "You'll never be rich. You'll never drive a nice car," they told him. Though some of it was said in jest, Cowan said he shrugged his shoulders and responded, "This is may passion. This is what I want to do."
The Mesa district was the first he interviewed with during recruiting on campus.
"I was sold. They had innovative programs, forward thinking," he said. "I came home to our duplex and said to Amy, 'How about Mesa, Arizona?'"
The couple had visited the area only once before, in the hot month of June, for a friend's wedding.
They moved here and never looked back.
That was 1988. Since then, Cowan has taught at Porter, Lehi and Irving elementary schools.
"I still have teaching withdrawals," he said. He has fond memories of the first days of school: the high energy of students and teachers, the excitement everyone shares upon seeing old friends, the children's joy of new school clothes and new beginnings.
But he also keeps in mind the tough challenges teachers face.
"It's one thing to have 28 students in a classroom," he said. "It's another to have 28 individuals who each have specific needs."
It's those students who are the first priority for Cowan. As Mesa faces "uncommon change" with declining enrollment and significant budget cuts, those who rely on Mesa public schools' services may see some differences.
Now on the doorsteps of the superintendency, Cowan said he plans to continue what he's always done in education to help the district map out its future: Ask questions and listen.
"When a decision needs to be made, it's 'Let's get as much input as we can,'" Cowan said.
He calls principals often. He sits down with students and teachers. Currently, he's heading up the strategic planning committee to re-create the district's mission statement and vision. That collaboration includes not only those from the district, but business leaders, community members and lawmakers.
"His sensitivity to all aspects of our district's operations, coupled with his teaching and curriculum supervision experience, reflects a collaborative style of leadership," current superintendent Debra Duvall said. "I think Mike will invite dialogue. He'll reach consensus when needed, but he'll also take on the role as the decision-maker when that's appropriate."
Cowan is doing a lot of inquiring nowadays. A declining enrollment is tough enough to handle, and after years of growth, Mesa is seeing rapid reduction. The student population has dropped by more than 4,000 in the last five years. Projections for next fall show a decrease of another 2,000 kids.
The state budget crisis is producing a "double whammy," Duvall said.
Recently, she announced that the district may have to cut 440 certified positions in the 10,000-employee district for next school year.
The last time the Mesa district had to cut positions, most employees found jobs elsewhere in the district thanks to retirements and resignations. It's unclear what's going to happen this year, though employees who have one-year contracts have received letters reminding them that there is no guarantee for their employment next year.
"We need to make sure the organization fits the size of the student population we're serving," Cowan said.
The cuts lawmakers are looking at for next school year could mean a $30 million to $70 million loss for Mesa schools. The district learned it would have to cut nearly $10 million this spring; the district had already cut $20 million last summer.
When the school board learned last fall that Duvall would retire on June 30, the first - and only - person interviewed for the job was Cowan. Members of the board said his experience in the district was critical at this time. Bringing in someone new who needed time to learn the surroundings was not a good option.
"The district is in challenging times and moving forward," said school board member Mike Nichols. "His experience as an administrator is on the top. His direct involvement in the school district and knowledge base of the school district - that is key in hard, hard economic times."
Fellow board member Steve Peterson agreed.
"We were excited to have an internal candidate who is well-regarded along the state, among the city, the teachers, the legislators," Peterson said. "He has been very active in the community."