For The Outpost
Former Billings School District 2 superintendent Jack Copps is enjoying a month-long break before he returns to education administration next month, when he will head up the hill to Montana State University Billings to teach in the fall.
The 73-year-old packed up his office at the Lincoln Center on June 30 after four years with the district.
“Montana State University has hired me to advise an education leadership program that leads to a master’s degree and an endorsement as a K-12 principal,” Mr. Copps explained. “The good news is that MSU has agreed to export that program to Billings to allow me to teach here and to stay in Billings. That was one of the conditions because I really wanted to stay here.”
Mr. Copps will be teaching the classes on the MSU Billings campus, and is looking forward to a much less intense environment than that of his former position of superintendent, when he was out the door at 6 a.m. most days and did not return home until late in the evening.
“No evening activities, no weekend activities,” he smiled about his new position. “Gives me more time with my family and we can plan around vacation schedules with the college and do trips and things like that. This will be great; it will keep me busy. I am truly addicted to this business; I just love it.”
Three months after notifying the board of his intention to leave the school district, he approached MSU and expressed an interest in teaching there. “It’s like going to treatment; I just can’t cut it loose all at one time,” he said with a laugh.
“I knew I was going to continue to do something in education,” he explained. “I did not know whether it would be in employment or not. It may have been volunteer work. I did not plan to completely move away from it. I did not anticipate that I would be working in an educational leadership program.”
Copps came to Billings from Helena, where he was serving as executive director for the Montana Quality Education Coalition when he accepted the position as interim superintendent with the intent to be here one year. Eventually it went two, then three, and finally to four years.
“I decided that if I were going to do another contract it needed to be a multi-year contract,” he said, “and I didn’t want to make a three-year commitment, nor did my wife feel that comfortable with it.”
This year marked Copps’ 49th year in education. Asked if he had any regrets about his service during his last four years in Billings, he said only that he wasn’t younger.
“If I have any regret at all is that I’m 73 and not 55,” he admitted, “because if I were 55 I would have loved to have served this district for a longer period of time.”
Mr. Copps had a poignant revelation about 20 years ago when he was thinking of retirement.
“I thought about retirement like everybody does as a time to get away from work and enjoy myself and do what I really love to do,” he recalled. “Well, I thought, what I’m doing is what I really love to do. And so I decided to stick around and … I still like it!”
Copps, who is from Rapid City, S.D., said his first career choices were drastically different from education. He began at pharmacy school, and then switched to journalism.
“I came into education by accident,” he admitted. “Absolutely by accident. It was not my intent to go into education. And I’m grateful to this day that I did that.”
He had a professor in college who talked him into moving toward education simply to fulfill elective requirements, though he was very reluctant at first. It proved to be one of his greatest professional decisions.
“I knew once I got into teaching that that was the job for me,” he declared. “It’s an amazing profession.”
Mr. Copps said he’s often asked why he has stayed at it so long.
“My response always has been that I get every bit as much back as I give,” he said. “In fact, sometimes I think I get more back.”
Class sizes a challenge
Copps had his share of challenges as superintendent with School District 2, including increasing class sizes at the elementary level and a rising at-risk student population, which he said leads to higher dropout rates.
“It is true that in a school district of 15,500 kids, which is a huge school district, there are lots and lots of surprises, because first of all that is more kids than MSU and MSU B combined. Then you have to add to that at least 25,000 parents who are also very much involved in this process. You don’t even find it at a lot of other school districts around the country for 15,500 kids. So there a lot of challenges. And also surprises. There are some sad moments. There are some very happy moments. There are some days that I just wonder why I had to experience that kind of day. When I weigh it all, when I put it all together, I’m just grateful.”
Another source of discontent for many in the community has been the fight for proper educational funding, but Mr. Copps takes a unique perspective on the issue.
“It is right that school districts struggle for money because in the end school districts need to be as efficient as possible,” he began. “We have less money than we think we should have; we are forced to give closer examinations to the use of the money and in the end be more efficient. I’m one of those people who believe that if you want to talk about the damage of not having enough money, we first of all need to go back to the Great Depression and ask ourselves whether kids were being educated during the Great Depression. And they clearly were.
“So even if we have buildings in disrepair,” he continued, “even if we don’t have as much money as we think we should have, we need to understand that we need to be creative and we need to do the best we possibly can and the very best we can possibly do in this business is hire right and make sure we bring in the very best out of every teacher that serves in the classroom. And if the teachers are at their very best, and if we care, and if we develop meaningful relationships with students, then our kids will be successes.”
Mr. Copps is known around the community for his passionate commitment to his students, and what saddens him most he said is the rise in at-risk population from a lack of adequate parenting.
“We see a lot of kids who are at risk because of the home environment at which they live,” he said. “It could be an environment of abuse; it could be an environment of neglect. But when they show up at school in kindergarten, all you have to do is be there for about two hours and you can see the huge gap. And that gap is so huge in some instances it’s difficult to close within one or two years. And if we don’t get it closed by the end of the second grade, or at least by the end of the third grade, there is little chance we will ever have those kids on an equal playing field with their peers. So I am very saddened by that.”
Copps hopes for a future of smaller class sizes in all grades, but especially at the high school level.
“We know from research and all the studies that at-risk kids are at greater risk in greater populations. When we have high schools of 2,000, 1,800 and 1,600 like we do here, those kids are at greater risk. Dropout rates go up when high schools hit 900. We can’t give enough time to the kids. We have to build a relationship with those kids. They have to feel connected. If they don’t feel connected, it doesn’t make any difference what we do. Mediocre teachers tell; good teachers explain; great teachers demonstrate; superior teachers inspire. In the classroom, we have to be inspirational.”
As he makes his exit from School District 2, he declines to tout his achievements in the past four years.
“I know that the family that I called School District 2 and the greater family that I call this community will make that decision,” he said. “They will know what my contributions were to this district, and they will be the best judge of that. The most important thing that I know is that I had the opportunity to serve and that I took that opportunity seriously, I gave it my all, and I hope I made School District 2 a better place because of that.”