AURORA — When Indian Prairie School District 204’s superintendent announced her plans to retire at the end of the year, Michael Popp decided he did not want to apply for the job.
“It was a very conscious decision on my part,” said Popp, who was selected last week to take the reins as East Aurora’s superintendent next month.
Popp, who has worked for Indian Prairie for 24 years, said he wanted to support the candidate who eventually got the job, Karen Sullivan, who is Indian Prairie’s assistant superintendent of human resources. But he also knew if he was going to be a superintendent, he wanted to lead a district that was “much more diverse” than Indian Prairie.
When he heard the East Aurora School District superintendent position was open, he said, he called the search firm that was recruiting candidates to see if he could toss his hat in the ring.
“My passion point truly is about serving a diverse community,” Popp said. “That is what I am passionate about and that is what I am bringing to the district — and people are going to see that.”
Popp, 48, who lives in Plainfield and is divorced with no children, grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago in Brighton Park, an area that had a large Polish community during Popp’s childhood, as well as a growing Hispanic population.
During a time when Chicago Public Schools teachers frequently went on strike, Popp’s family decided to enroll him in a private all-boys prep school not far from his home. To help pay for his tuition, Popp had a part-time job and a work-study job, he said.
It was at St. Rita of Cascia High School that Popp fell in love with English literature and decided he wanted to teach the subject. After graduating from college, he was offered a teaching position at his former high school.
“Back then the salary was around the poverty line,” Popp said. “I did whatever I could to be involved in the school and also make ends meet,” including coaching soccer and overseeing several student groups.
Popp said he thought he’d stay at St. Rita’s “forever until I died” — until a former teacher and colleague of his, who was working at an Indian Prairie middle school, told him about an English teacher opening at Waubonsie Valley High School.
He got the job and has spent the last two-and-a-half decades climbing the ladder at Indian Prairie. He spent four years as Neuqua Valley High School’s principal, two years as the district’s director of school improvement and planning, and three years in his role as the executive director for teaching and learning for kindergarten to 12th grade.
In that position, he helps with several major district functions, including hiring staff, school improvement planning and budgeting.
Trying to hire a bilingual superintendent had been important for the East Aurora School Board, whose first choice, Jesse Rodriguez, unexpectedly withdrew his acceptance of the East Aurora superintendent position last month. Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican and spoke Spanish, opted to stay in Milwaukee, where he is a regional superintendent for the city’s public school district.
Popp said, when he heard Rodriguez had been selected, he thought the school board had made a good choice. Rodriguez had the only thing Popp didn’t, he said — the ability to speak Spanish.
Popp plans to practice his Spanish and to get better at speaking it in his new role.
“I will need some help with translation,” he said. “But, I am a very good student of languages … I’m looking forward to learning as I go.”
Popp said many people don’t realize that more than 100 languages are spoken by Indian Prairie families and that the district has “some schools where the predominant race in the building is not white.”
One of his proudest achievements, he said, is that, for the last decade, he has led Indian Prairie’s equity efforts by focusing on helping to improve the achievement of struggling minority students.
But that wasn’t always the case, he said.
About 10 years ago, he and other administrators thought Indian Prairie was doing well compared to other districts on state standardized tests, he said. But staff took only a passing glance at how black, Hispanic and special education students were doing, he said.
“We would close that folder and go back to ‘Wow, we did really well,’” he said. “And up until 10 years ago, I was that guy.”
He said that, under Indian Prairie’s former Superintendent Howard Crouse, the district started to focus more on helping struggling subgroups of students by bringing in a consultant and having honest conversations about how administrator’s personal experiences with race was shaping their expectations for students.
“Culturally and collectively we had low expectations,” Popp said.
It was then he made it his mission to raise those expectations and help more minority students get into advanced classes, Popp said.
East Aurora has a larger number of Hispanic and low-income students than Indian Prairie, despite the fact the district’s enrollment is almost twice the size of East Aurora’s.
But East Aurora’s spokesman, Matt Hanley, pointed out that “the raw numbers show Dr. Popp has experience with the issues that East students face.”
According to state data, Indian Prairie had about 5,400 low-income students last year and about 2,900 Hispanic students.
“Those are not an insignificant numbers of students,” Hanley said.
Popp said the other three districts he considered working for — he was a finalist for open superintendent positions at Springfield Public Schools, Woodstock 200 and Normal-based Unit 5 — also had relatively large Hispanic or black populations.
“They all have the common theme of they are districts where I can continue my focus on equity, my focus on raising achievement for students that traditionally are underserved in this country,” he said.
He is scheduled to begin April 1, four days after sitting Superintendent Jerome Roberts retires. Popp’s annual salary will be $215,800.