Myrtle Tate Elementary School Principal Sarah Popek enjoys a challenge.
She wakes at 3:30 a.m. every day to run 8 miles. Afterward, at work, her challenges include helping at-risk students, teachers frequently moving and low achievement scores.
After six years of working to improve the school, Popek, 38, is being recognized as Nevada’s 2017 National Distinguished Principal. One principal from each state receives the award, given by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. In October, she is set to travel to Washington, D.C., to represent Nevada and the Clark County School District.
“There are many, many hard-working principals in this district, and to be singled out is truly an honor,” said Popek, who previously was an assistant principal at Cahlan and Dickens elementary schools.
Lorna James-Cervantes, the district’s school associate superintendent and Popek’s supervisor, said she nominated Popek for the award in May. She said Popek has “done an outstanding job of raising student achievement at her school. She puts her students first and her school first.”
Tate Elementary is considered an at-risk school, and the majority of the students come from low-income families, Popek said. About 70 percent are Hispanic, and many are still learning English, she said.
“I was looking for different challenges,” Popek said. “When I got to the school, the morale among the staff was very, very low.”
She said teachers were frustrated by a lack of resources. The transiency rate, or how often teachers left the school, was high. Popek said that when she came in, she hired new people for two-thirds of the staff.
But even the students weren’t staying at the school long.
“I think the biggest challenge for me as principal is student transiency,” she said. “If you change an apartment complex, you go to a different school. It’s hard to get momentum with the students when they leave so frequently.”
Myrtle Tate Elementary now has some of the highest growth rates in the district, James-Cervantes said.
In addition to improving students’ education and test scores, she said, Popek has connected with the community.
James-Cervantes said she has seen Popek dance with students after the school won a physical fitness award and teach parents about the concepts their students will learn.
Popek said she thinks the best way to teach children is to address their individual needs.
“Every single student is an individual that has the potential to be successful,” she said. “As a principal, I need to do that on a schoolwide basis, helping my teachers identify what a student needs to be successful.”
Growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, Popek created a school in her basement. She had to persuade her younger brother and sister to serve as students.
“Every single penny of my allowance went to buying school supplies,” she said. “I never realized I wanted to be a principal but always knew I wanted to be a teacher.”
She even married a teacher. Popek met her husband, Chris, at a teacher-training session in 2001. Her husband is now the principal at C.C. Ronnow-Edison Elementary School.
“There are many days that we come home and we don’t say a word to each other because we need to get away from work,” she said. “It’s very nice to have somebody who completely understands the challenges, the struggles of the job.”
While running, Popek thinks of creative ideas for the classroom. She takes her 8-year-old son, Trystan, to school with her.
Her son will finish elementary school at Myrtle Tate, but Popke knows she won’t be there forever. But she said that if she leaves, she’ll go on to help another struggling school.
“I’m a little bit of a workaholic,” she said. “There’s always a challenge out there, especially in Clark County School District.”
By the numbers
875: Students at Myrtle Tate Elementary School
94: Staff members
55: Licensed teachers