New superintendent is all in

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Todd Mishler | June 30, 2017

JANESVILLE -- Early in January, members of the Janesville School Board had heard and seen enough about the candidates for the next superintendent to make a decision ahead of schedule.

They unanimously decided they didn't need a second round of interviews with the finalists.

They were so impressed with Steve Pophal that they named him to succeed the retiring Karen Schulte, ending a five-month search process.

He officially begins work July 1.

Pophal started teaching in 1983 and has held administrative positions since 1991, working with the D.C. Everest system since 2002.

The Wausau native, 56, earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a master's from Marian University and his superintendent credential from Edgewood College. He is the past president of the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Here is the Janesville Messenger's Q&A with Pophal:

Q: What were the main reasons you wanted this position?

A. There is exciting growth and development going on within the School District of Janesville and across the community. Teaching and learning is shifting from students sitting passively and collecting facts from teachers to creating content and solving real-world problems.

In addition, Janesville is working tirelessly to rebound from the loss of General Motors and related industries. Everywhere I go, I feel this energy and sense this pride, and I wanted to be a part of supporting the district and community to evolve from great to greater.

Q. What experiences and responsibilities in your most recent job at D.C. Everest (director of secondary education) best prepare you for taking this step?

A. DCE is an innovative district determined to demonstrate that a large public school district is capable of transforming itself to prepare kids for their future, not our past. Teaching and learning is focused on what students do.

We implemented salary and daily work schedules designed to support and reward adults to work collaboratively and be life-long learners, we implemented a districtwide one-on-one initiative, we implemented standards-based teaching and learning and increasingly personalized learning to the unique strengths and interests of each student.

I was fortunate to be a part of the leadership team responsible to build this vision and work with staff and the community to implement these significant changes. In short, I have experience working with people to build a “fantastic dream” for what education should look like, and I am experienced working with people to take action to turn dreams into reality for kids. I always say nothing happens in education until it happens for kids.

Q. What have been the best parts of the transition and what have been the toughest parts of switching districts?

A. I'm excited by the people I'm meeting in Janesville. I've already met with or had conversations with board members, district office leaders, principals, community leaders, union representatives, higher education leaders and Forward Janesville members and staff. I have been impressed by the talent, work ethic and commitment to the district and community in every interaction. I welcome the opportunity to be a part of the SDJ team.

The hard part about leaving DCE is saying goodbye to people I care about. My work at Everest was a way of life for me, not just a job. I look forward to rebuilding these same relationships with people in Janesville.

Q. What were your thoughts and why was it important to change the structure at the top of the district? (Kim Ehrhardt, Barb Kelly and Chris Wesling also have retired)

A. It always is difficult to lose talented people who performed at a high level and dedicated their lives to their work. I believe the community owes a debt of gratitude to our retirees, as the SDJ has much to be proud of.

With three key leaders retiring, it seemed wise to hit the pause button and get input to determine if the district leadership team was aligned with the promises the district was making to students, employees and the community. Hence, I did not go into the process with predetermined ideas about changing anything. Rather, I wanted to hear what people in the organization and community told me, to look for opportunities to ensure Educational Service Center administration is positioned to serve students and the staff who work with them. The process I followed included:

• Phone conversations with each of the three retirees and 43 district leaders (cabinet/director level administrators, union heads, principals, coordinators, department managers and program support teachers)

• One-on-one conversations with Forward Janesville community leaders during their annual advocacy trip to Washington, D.C.

• Gathering/reviewing numerous organizational structures from similar districts across Wisconsin

• Meeting with the leadership team to review findings from phone conversations and make recommendations

First and foremost, I heard many great stories about what a wonderful place the SDJ is to learn and work. The people I talked to are proud of the district and community. In addition, I consistently heard people wanted a superintendent who would be visible in schools and build partnerships in the community. I heard that we need to ensure the district has a laserlike focus on what its priorities are. I heard about needing to re-level certain positions to enable the district to attract and retain talent in a highly competitive job market. This is the feedback that resulted in the recommendation to restructure.

Q. With recent state budget cuts, what effects have you seen, what are your perspectives about the whole public versus private/voucher situation and what do you think needs to be done in the school-funding arena?

A. Resources matter. Anyone who denies this fact has never run a school. Having said that, the district needs to continue to be a good steward of the resources we have and ensure we are spending every dollar on things that work for kids. In addition, we need sufficient resources to keep class sizes manageable, attract and retain talented staff, provide safe facilities and provide classroom materials and supplies needed for great teaching and learning.

Communities need high-quality public and private schools. I respect families who decide a private or faith-based education is best for their child. I prefer our systems work cooperatively to serve kids in our community and can be relied on to work with local and private school service providers.

Vouchers are taxpayer funds provided to individual students to give them the freedom to attend a private school of their choice. If a private school accepts students with voucher money, the school is accepting public money and should be held to the same accountability standards, requirements to serve all students and transparency about how the money is spent as public schools. Taxpayers deserve accountability and transparency about how public money is spent, regardless of whether the school is public or private.

Finally, we need to make public policy decisions based on evidence rather than ideology. Ideology, right or left, merely forwards political agendas and does not serve kids well. I can be counted on to be an advocate for kids, not ideology.

Q. Your predecessor (Schulte) was a strong proponent of the district's International Outreach Program, which was controversial in some circles. Your feelings on the program/issues?

A. We live in a global world and economy. If you need evidence for this claim, simply ask local companies where they purchase parts and materials and manufacture and sell products. In virtually every mid- or large-sized company in Janesville, the answers to these questions include working with nations and people around the world. If we are committed to preparing kids for their future, we must be realistic about preparing them to thrive in varied cultures and work effectively with people from different walks of life.

Q. In what ways does your background as a free/reduced-lunch student help provide perspective in providing a quality education for kids considering the myriad social/cultural/economic issues facing families today?

A. My career has been blessed by opportunities I never knew existed when I was a kid. Attending a great public school district made this possible. I know how important it is to have high expectations for every child and to believe every child can succeed given the right amount of love and support. If I can be the superintendent of Janesville, then the sky is the limit for every kid who walks the halls of the SDJ every day.

Q. What are the main efforts to address kids at the bottom of academic spectrum and their prospects for post-high school?

A. Strategies to ensure success for all kids start at a very young age because it is better to prevent achievement gaps than to close achievement gaps. Hence, we need to front-load resources with our youngest learners. We need to be sure kids can read at grade level by the end of third grade. Doing so is highly predictive of success in school. We need to be sure kids successfully complete Algebra I by the end of ninth grade, because this is a gateway course for many other courses and career choices. We need to require and support every graduate to complete an application to some form of post-high school training because the application process often prevents kids from going on to something after high school.

Finally, you have heard me use the word love in numerous places. I believe kids who are loved at home come to school ready to learn. Kids who aren't loved at home come to school needing to be loved before they can learn. We have to be ready to love all kids to enable them to open their hearts and minds to learning and a hope-filled future.

Q. Tell me a little about what I'm sure are mixed emotions about leaving D.C. Everest and starting a new job in Janesville.

A. I feel honored and humbled by the trust the SDJ board and community has placed in me to be the next superintendent. I am coming to town with a servant's heart and to treat people with love and respect.

My wife (Judy) and I are all in with the move to Janesville. We are investing in the community's economy by building a new home. Judy has a number of ideas she is researching about how she can serve the district as a volunteer to contribute to setting all kids up for success. In short, we are coming to Janesville to stay for the long run. Doing so is the only way to make a lasting difference for those we serve.



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