Jack Copps was finishing up his first stint as superintendent of Helena Public Schools in 1989 the first time he tried to retire.
He took several jobs after that, intending to retire each time, but was instead captivated by each new opportunity. His last job brought him back to Helena as interim superintendent in 2016.
This time he promises he’s truly retiring, after 55 years in education.
“As much as I love this business, at some point we have to make other decisions about life, and in this particular case this decision is not only about myself, but my partner,” he said.
Copps and Greg Upham, his assistant superintendent, are both leaving the Helena school district on June 30. Upham accepted a job as superintendent of Billings Public Schools and will start on July 2.
Copps will be replaced by Tyler Ream, who is coming from an assistant superintendent position in Houston. Josh McKay, the principal at Helena Middle School, will be the district’s new assistant superintendent.
While Upham is taking the next step in his career and Copps, who is 81, will have the chance to experience retirement, both agreed their departure is bittersweet.
The two were tasked with speaking about each other at a going-away party put on the by the Helena Education Foundation June 5. The two bantered before celebrating each other’s accomplishments, expressed how grateful they were to the community and assured Helena they were leaving it in good hands.
Copps came to Helena as interim superintendent shortly after Helena voters shot down a contentious $70 million bond that left the community and the school district divided. He has largely received credit for helping the community come to terms with the demolition and plan to rebuild historic Central School. He was the spokesperson for the $63 million bond effort to rebuild Central, Jim Darcy and Bryant elementary schools, which received overwhelming support from voters.
“It was certainly a fight,” Copps said. “But we clearly aren’t enemies now.”
Copps said there were still people who didn’t support the decision the school district made when it came to Central School, but he made a point to give everyone a voice and thought that encouraged people to ultimately support the bond.
He said he’s been asked many times about the secret to passing a bond, but he rarely answers with anything that gives himself any credit. Most recently, Upham quickly answered for him.
“Jack strategically simplified the message, communicated the message concisely and honestly and then the third part ... he gets people to trust him,” Upham said.
Copps’ lengthy career in education started on the Fort Peck Reservation in Poplar. He told the story of his first teaching job to the crowd at his going-away party. Copps and his wife were driving from Rapid City, South Dakota, and were excited about Montana.
“We kept saying, this is Montana. This is where all the mountains are,” Copps said to a laughing crowd. “We arrived in Poplar, Montana, so the first thing I did is to promise to be there only one year and I ended up, long story short, being there 15 years."
He was the superintendent in Helena from 1987-1989 and assistant superintendent for seven years prior to that. He left for a position as deputy superintendent at the Office of Public Instruction. He later served as executive director of the Montana Quality Education Foundation and was superintendent of schools in Billings from 2006-2013. He returned to Helena as interim superintendent in 2016 and found Helena was the place he wanted to permanently retire.
Copps already has plans to stay connected with the community through volunteer work at Big Brothers Big Sisters, Shodair Children’s Hospital, the YMCA or the Helena Education Foundation. But he still expects the adjustment to be difficult.
“For every person in this community, for every person in this room, I’m so deeply grateful that I had this opportunity at this time in my life,” he said. “I’ll miss the school district and I’ll miss it for a long time I suspect.”
Copps, of course, ended his speech with jokes. He said he paid Upham $100 to say nice things about him, and when turning the mic over, told Upham to “try and beat that.”
Upham will take over as superintendent in Billings on July 2 and plans to hit the ground running with priorities on improving career and technical education and boosting academic achievement. Both are issues Upham has championed in Helena.
He said he knows he’s talks about data often, but that it's really about showing how students are learning something that will open up other opportunities. For example, Upham said there are more than 700 Helena elementary students reading at grade level that weren’t five years ago, and almost 400 more students are now doing math at their grade level.
Upham also helped get an apprenticeship program off the ground that connects students interested in trades, like construction, with hands-on experience. Students in the program will get paid, learn on the job and have marketable skills to enter the workforce right after graduation.
While Upham is finishing his responsibilities in Helena, he’s joining meetings in Billings in preparation for his new position. He said when he attended a meeting on career and technical education, he had something to contribute.
“It just fit,” he said. “My experiences here have been invaluable to walking into that situation.”
Upham said he’s excited to continue working to ensure a public education where students have more opportunities than ever. By knowing the core fundamental skills in math and English, and also learning things like the importance of showing up to a job on time, Upham said students will have the means to choose what they want to do in life. While they might start in construction, a student could change their mind down the road and still will have the core skills to get more training or go to college.
At the going-away party last week, Upham thanked the people who he said are the reason he has the qualifications to take on a role as superintendent.
“I’m fortunate enough to work with a lot of people who have frankly made me better,” he said.
He gave a tribute to his mom, who he said inspired him with her fearlessness. She was a single mother who had moved off the reservation and had a successful career working for Head Start.
“She instilled the importance of public education, which I truly believe in,” Upham said.
Upham started as a teacher in Browning, spent a year in Belt and then came to Helena in 1992. He taught at Helena High School for 10 years and was assistant principal at Capital High School for another 10 years. He moved back to Helena High in 2006 for a position as principal and stayed until he became assistant superintendent for the district in 2012.
He said he’s most proud of the sense of pride that Helena teachers, support staff and administrators have in the work they do.
“I’ve had a wonderful career in this community,” he said.
Copps called Upham the best partner he’s had in his career and said his departure is a terrible loss for Helena, but an asset for Billings.
“I think Greg’s going to be kind of a surprise to Billings. I say that because Greg has expectations,” Copps said jokingly.
Copps said Upham has always prioritized students, making sure they have the tools necessary to be ready for the next step in their lives.
“He deserves all the applause possible,” he said.
The pair have spent the last few weeks prepping their successors and reflecting on their contributions in Helena.
“It causes us to be very thoughtful about leaving Helena and making sure it’s in good hands,” Copps said. “I think we’ve done that.”