By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
PENNS GROVE – Growing up in Puerto Rico with hard-working parents and three other sisters, Dr. Zenaida Cobian had dreams of entering the medical field as a physician.
With the financial burden of a sister already in medical school, Cobian started to teach to save money. The unexpected turn eventually led her to New Jersey and she now serves as superintendent of the Penns Groves-Carney Point Regional School District, one of the few Latinas to lead a school district in New Jersey.
“My father was a math teacher and my mother worked in a factory,” Cobian told Front Runner New Jersey/La Prensa. “They worked hard to send us to school and give us an education. As they always said: ‘This is our legacy. We do not have riches in possessions but we have each other and the education you will get.’
“They raised all of us to be women of strength, knowledge, faith, and kindness,” added Cobian. “I completed all my studies on the ‘Island of Enchantment.’ To be able to make it through college, we all found part-time jobs.”
Her job in college preparing burgers at Wendy’s is a far cry from running a diverse school district of more than 2,000 students, interacting with pupils, teachers, staff and parents, balancing life with a family of her own at home as well.
She graduated Cum Laude in pre-med from the University of Puerto Rico. Cobian would earn her master’s degree in educational administration from Cheyney University and a doctorate in educational leadership from Wilmington University.
She learned that balanced work ethic from her parents. Her mother left early to work in the factory, leaving her father, who was studying to be a lawyer, with waking up and getting dress duties.
“I remember him working long hours to come home and study until early morning to repeat the same process again,” Cobian said. “My mami worked until 6 p.m. in the factory to come home exhausted and fix dinner and get us ready for the next morning. She used to leave before anyone of us and dad would fix our hair. Ponytails and braided hair were the styles until we got to high school.”
Cobian said the sister who attended medical school died of breast cancer at 33 and now “she is in heaven taking care of angels.” Cobian’s love for education though would bring her to New Jersey when Camden put out the call for bilingual teachers in 1986.
“The pay was substantially different from the salary a teacher gets in Puerto Rico,” Cobian said. “They were currently making $1,000 take home every 15 days. At that time I began to work as a teacher in Puerto Rico to save money, it was $500 after taxes.”
Cobian’s interest in math and science came as a natural, which also nudged her to the education field.
“As a child, I played the teacher role and while in college I was good at teaching my peers math,” Cobian said. “I am excellent in math and I was able to explain difficult concepts to them. They kept telling me I was better at explaining than the professor. I stayed in education as it is rewarding.
“Children certainly know when you are sincere and really are serious about them and their learning. Seeing the needs of the children made me give more to them. I was able to nurture their minds and souls with education. I was able to “heal” their minds and provide the nourishment that learning can provide,” she added.
Cobian came to Penns Grove in 2000 as an assistant principal at the high school. She said she found the interaction between everyone cordial, professional and friendly.
“The administrative team was supportive and provided me with guidance and advice,” Cobian said. “The students were eager to learn and were understanding of each other and respectful with their peers and adults. Teachers and guidance counselors were responsible and diligent, they took their responsibilities seriously.
“The secretaries, custodians, maintenance, and cafeteria staff always had a smile and kept an eye on the students as they all were a part of the system. Parents were concerned and ready to partner with us to educate their children,” she said.
After being elevated to a job in the district’s administration, Cobian was appointed superintendent in 2014, the first woman and Latino named to the post.
“Becoming a superintendent was a long-range goal,” Cobian said. “The Lord decides when your plans will be ‘adjusted.’ When the board of education unanimously appointed me, it was and honor and a privilege to be selected among other candidates to lead the district.
“It still makes me humble and grateful every day I get to be the superintendent. As a person not born and raised in the mainland United States, it was a proud moment to represent a group that is considered a minority in both gender and ethnicity,” she continued.
Cobian said even though her relationship with students have changed since she sees them less than what she would if she was in the classroom, she realizes she still has an impact.
“When you are a teacher, students always tell you how much they appreciate you,” Cobian said. “As your role change, your relationship with the students changes also as you are a person they do not see on a daily basis. I was elated when one of the students told their principal once they wanted to be me, a superintendent.”
Cobian said she takes her role as superintendent seriously because she realizes how her critical her decisions can be on not only inside the school walks but throughout the Penns Grove and Carneys Point community, even though everyone may not be happy with it.
“I am thankful for those that have believed in me to give me the opportunities to be in leadership positions like my board of education,” Cobian said. “People do not realize how their position is important, impactful and they must work as a team to be able to have continuous improvements in a school district.
“The community must understand that decisions made at the superintendent level might not be popular but they are made with students in mind following federal and state law,” she continued.
Cobian has numerous awards, including the Teacher of the Year in 1994 and again in 1995, the Camden City Schools District Service Leader Award in 1998, the 2005 NJIT Outstanding Contribution Award, 2008 NAACP Excellence in Education Award and the 2009 Puerto Rico Action Committee (PRAC) Outstanding Hispanic Educator award.
She was nominated by her colleagues and peers to receive the 2012 NJASCD Excellence in Education award. She has been the President of Curriculum and Instruction Roundtables, President of NJASCD, Presidents of Governance Council and President of Penns Grove Rotary Club.
Here are a few more responses Cobian gave to Front Runner New Jersey/La Prensa
FRNJ: What do you hope to accomplish during your time as superintendent?
Zenaida Cobian: Every leader before me made decisions with the best for the students in mind. We all make changes that might be considered positive by some and negative by others, nonetheless, they are done based on the best information at that time. I do not take my responsibility lightly. I reflect every moment on the decisions that must be made to benefit the staff and students. There are extreme pressures that come with the position, but I have learned to adjust, adapt and learn new ways to handle the challenges that are presented. Schools are the safest place for our children to be safe and learn.
During my time as the superintendent I have brought back traditions such as the school district parade during homecoming. This has brought pride and happiness to the community and students. Collaborated with Salem Community College and other institutions of higher education to add dual credit courses, align eighth grade middle school with high school academic requirements to increase the number of graduates attending college. Increased the graduation rate from 76% to 95%. I have worked with my team to expand the preschool offerings to full day for three and four year old. Although I have expanded the performing arts in our district, I want to have additional offerings like dance for our students. I want to continue furthering the students’ learning offerings that are challenging and prepares them to be competitive when they attend colleges and universities while at the same time are individual of character and have empathy.
FRNJ: Who are your role models?
Zenaida Cobian: My role models are my mother and my father. They instill in me my work ethics, my faith and my belief that there is always something good in people. To be a person of character, faith and empathy. To always smile and say hello even though others might not do the same. To understand that everyone, at some point in their lives, are going through some difficulty that will make them be resentful and sad. To love , live and laugh!
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