Q&A: Stephen Popp, future head of The John Cooper School, discusses pandemic challenges

Stephen Popp is in the process of becoming the head of school for The John Cooper School, the K-12 college preparatory school in The Woodlands, effective July 1, 2022.

Popp has served as the assistant head of school since 2019, and he held the position of head of the upper school in 2015.

Popp spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about the current school year and what has changed due to the coronavirus pandemic and enrollment growth.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Could you tell me about yourself and how you came to join The John Cooper School?

This is my 23rd year in education. I have served in a number of roles as a teacher, administrator and lifelong learner. I started my career in public school at Plano Senior High School, where I taught Advanced Placement courses, politics and history. I then moved to Houston for family and spent 10 years at St. John School downtown as a history teacher and dean of students. Then, seven years ago, I was fortunate enough to have this opportunity to become the head of upper school here at John Cooper.

What is this school year looking like? What should people know about this year?

In a pandemic, we have endeavored to provide as much of a normal experience as possible. Given the complexities in this pandemic, while we cannot control everything externally, what we try to do is more our response to some fundamental tenets that center around health and well-being, student learning and growth, and flexibility and support for our families. This school year we have carried over some of the mitigation measures that we found worked very well last year, and given the current conditions, we wanted to ensure we were able to provide our students as much of an uninterrupted start to the school year and experience. ... And we have been able to do so.

What is important about keeping students in person?

I think part of it is that our teachers are dedicated, innovative and creative, and they have a wealth of experience now. They came into this pandemic growth-oriented and thinking about how to set up our students for success. We know having students on campus is the most preferred approach to educating ... but when students have to be out for quarantine or medical reasons, we feel we have support systems in place for them to continue their learning. We were very intentional about making sure that our curriculum continues to be delivered ... and that we are continuing to afford our students all of the opportunities we pride ourselves on each and every year.

Is this the highest student population The John Cooper School has had?

I think this is the highest it has ever been. I think we are constantly committed to supporting our students and living up to our mission of challenging our students in a caring environment. We have [a] collective effort of putting students at the center and ensuring their safety and well-being, ... and our efforts of being flexible and providing options for families last year I think generated interest and enthusiasm for being part a school community that is centered on those tenets.

Could you walk me through what some of those tenets are?

In a pandemic, we want to make sure our students are taking care of themselves and we are taking care of the members of our community. We have also put an emphasis on our students from a mental health perspective. These initiatives predate the pandemic. ... We have partnered with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; we have two upper school counselors, a middle school counselor and a lower school counselor who are aligned in their approach to sharing messages about wellness and well-being on a weekly basis. We are partners with Active Minds, a nonprofit on mental health and well-being for young people. ... We had 75 students show up for our first Active Minds chapter meeting here on campus.

If a student tests positive for coronavirus, what is the procedure?

There is communication with families and teachers, and there is learning support that accompanies the student who may be in quarantine or isolation. Every [student] has an iPad. ... We started out the school year aspirational that students will be back on campus, and our parents and students were eager to be back on campus. When students are in quarantine, students are able to Zoom right into the classroom and experience the lessons as their peers are.

By Andrew Christman
Andrew joined Community Impact Newspaper in early 2019 after moving from Indiana. He is a 2015 graduate from Indiana State University, where he received degrees in English and journalism. He has written for a number of small town publications throughout his career as a reporter.


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