Administrators take promotions, relocate within SPC

Gabe Malek and Chris Zimmerman

Though he helped make the Student Center possible, Dean of Students Stephen Popp will not be at school next year to see its opening.

While Popp joked that leaving before the construction is completed is his final act of solidarity with the senior class, he had many other reasons for accepting the position of Head of Upper School at The John Cooper School.

But, if Popp’s departure and the opening of the Student Center are not enough to characterize the coming 2015-16 school year as one of change, then Head of Middle School Eric Lombardi’s decision to become Head of School at Fort Worth Country Day tops it off.

Although both Lombardi and Popp went through rigorous hiring processes to be chosen for their new positions, their experiences were different.

“To many people, applying for a job at another school seems disloyal, and I love this place, so I didn’t want anyone to think I wanted to leave. If things didn’t work out, nobody else would even know that I applied,” Lombardi said.“This search firm who contacted me was different because it promised stealth.”

Popp, who was less concerned about discretion, informed his colleagues early on about his considering the John Cooper offer.

“The great thing about SJS is that people here are educators, but they also like to grow professionally,” Popp said. “Once I got the green light from the team here, I threw my hat in the ring. I wanted to make sure, first, that my peers and bosses here knew that it was not done in a desire to get out of SJS, but rather just to pursue an exciting opportunity.”

Assistant Dean of Students, Elissa Inman, experienced a range of emotions after discovering that Popp would be leaving.

“It is a great opportunity for him and a well-deserved next step in his career, so I was obviously very happy. At the same time, I’m sad to see him go,” Inman said. “Our loss is John Cooper’s gain, no doubt.”

Popp found that the John Cooper position was distinct from most others.

“The mission statement was very compelling and was in some ways very similar to SJS,” Popp said. “The school has some of the same hallmarks as SJS, and it is a very caring and intellectually driven community.”

Lombardi liked the tenets of Fort Worth Country Day.

“Fort Worth Country Day is very big on the 3 A’s: academics, athletics, and arts,” Lombardi said. “It’s a job where I come in to a good place and try to keep it good.”

Popp and Lombardi both gained educational experience from the Klingenstein Center at the Teachers College of Columbia University. The center offers a one year course to obtain a Master’s Degree in Education.

“I actually went to the program not intending to be a head of school; the idea was to go up there and take my learning further,” Lombardi said. “I was afraid that I got into the mindset that what we were doing here was the only right way to do things. I think you learn the most in education from watching other educators work. I came back from there thinking that I was going to apply a lot of what I learned to St. Johns.”

Family and location were both key factors for Popp’s and Lombardi.

“The fact that the school in Fort Worth was big,” Lombardi said. “I grew up in Dallas, and my parents, who are in their eighties, are moving out of my childhood home. I watched friends of mine who had parents getting older, and they wanted to be around but couldn’t. I’ve also seen friends who’ve been around and how big of a difference that makes as their parents are moving into a retirement home.”

Popp wanted to make sure he stayed close to home.

“It was an important family decision for me,” Popp said. “I have two small kids, and my wife and I didn’t want to leave the Houston area, so I wanted to make sure I was doing my family right.”

Lombardi’s wife Deborah had recently moved into a new job.

“My wife and I got a call about our new jobs on the same day,” Lombardi said. “She’s now the interim exec director of HITS Theatre, and will continue that position until December, but until then, she will commute. We are both very excited about starting something new together.”

Both Popp and Lombardi are attempting to maintain the same level of devotion to their current positions before moving on.

“My job doesn’t technically start until July 1, so I want to finish up well here,” Popp said. “My wife and I are going to be moving up to the Woodlands, so I imagine that later in the spring there will be greater demands, but for now I can focus on SJS.”

Upper School Dean of Students, Stephen Popp, left, and Head of Middle School, Eric Lombardi, prepare for their new positions as Head of Upper School at The John Cooper School and Head of School at Fort Worth Country Day, respectively. Fort Worth Country Day is the fourth SPC school with which Lombardi has been involved.
Austin Zhang
Upper School Dean of Students, Stephen Popp, left, and Head of Middle School, Eric Lombardi, prepare for their new positions  as administrators at schools within SPC.

Lombardi also hopes to maintain his commitment to SJS while transitioning into his new job.

“I have seen several other administrators go through similar situations and manage to keep their attention focused on SJS, and I fully hold myself to that bar,” Lombardi said. “I am working hard to not let my upcoming job to be a distraction or take me away from here.”

Lombardi and Popp acknowledge that their new positions will include less interaction with students.

“I won’t be able to get to know 1,100 kids, but I am going to try to know 220 faculty and staff members the way I know the kids now,” Lombardi said. “I imagine having lunch with team captains and production casts, for example, so I can learn more about them.”

Popp also laments the lack of student interaction as an administrator.

“I got into education because I am a teacher at heart, so there will be less interaction with students as a Head of Upper School,” Popp said. “I have some great division heads to depend upon, and I am hoping to connect with all of the constituencies there.”

Inman, who will take over as Interim Dean of Students next school year, cites Popp as a mentor.

“I am personally thankful for having had the opportunity to work with and learn from Dean Popp over the past four years,” Inman said. “I’m excited to be part of the growth that is taking place at St. John’s.”

Head of Upper School Hollis Amley finds Popp’s departure bittersweet.

“We are so sad for SJS but so happy for Dean Popp and his family,” Amley said. “He’s certainly a bit of an icon in the Upper School, and I think he has provided a timbre to the position of dean, where you can be someone who is consistent and fair but also winsome and affable.”

Popp and Lombardi have been helpful in Amley’s transition this year.

“It has been hard because two major attractors to this position were getting to work with Mr. Lombardi and Dean Popp, so I personally lament their leaving, but am also excited for the two of them,” she said.

While SJS will lose two staples of the community, their departures leave room for new voices during a transformatory period at the school.

“There are several aspects of campus life that are changing, so bringing in new ideas is exciting,” Amley said. “It is disappointing to see two significant leaders leave, but I think it also gives us an opportunity to bring in new opinions and people, who have gone through these types of changes before.”