The Once and Future School

Can a School Meet the Challenge of Anticipating Tomorrow?

The Box:

The cardboard box that Jessica Holloway found tucked away on a closet shelf in her office seemed ordinary at first glance. It was the spring of 2022, and Holloway was settling in as the new director of marketing and communications for The John Cooper School in The Woodlands.

Inside the box were file folders and scrapbooks, says Holloway. It turned about to be a historical archive of sorts—a copy of the school’s very first crest, original brochures, copies of school announcements from the early years. Among memorabilia neatly taped to the old manilla scrapbook pages were photos of the undeveloped land dedicated for the school by The Woodlands founder George Mitchell and newspaper clippings from the school’s opening in 1988.

The finding of such a collection of articles and artifacts was serendipitous, as Cooper’s new Head of School, Dr. Stephen Popp, was in the process of initiating a new strategic planning project for the future of the school. It was a treasure trove, says Holloway, “a joyful discovery that was fascinating to us as a team.” What became clear to Popp was that “since its founding, The John Cooper School was sure of its goals, clear in its purpose, and always keeping an eye toward the future.”

Setting Sail:

A school may have lofty goals in mind at its inception. Like a ship setting off on its maiden voyage, great forethought and expertise have gone into its design, making it sturdy yet agile, able to weather the unexpected, pushing the known horizon. The question is, whether over the course of time, it will continue to meet the challenge, leading the way with the same exuberance that marked the day it first set sail.

Creating an educational experience that is impactful and relevant, that meets the challenge of the rapidly evolving digital age, is the big question facing educational institutions nationwide. In a 2020 survey of educators conducted by “Education Week,” nearly a third voiced concerns about how to prepare students for the future of work.

“How do we help our students navigate today’s world?” says Dr. Stephen Popp, Head of School at John Cooper. “How do we ensure that when our students are out there collaborating with others, they know how to interact, to communicate effectively, to handle the give and take of sharing ideas and working with others to create something?” The answer, says Popp, goes back to the school’s founding.

A School of the Future:

The idea of an independent school in The Woodlands was not an afterthought, says Popp. “George Mitchell specifically designated 43 acres for a college preparatory school, and the land was set aside in the original planning of The Woodlands.”

The John Cooper School opened its doors 34 years ago with an enrollment of 174 students, grades K through 4, adding a grade every year after that. Its first graduating class was in 1994, says Popp, and the title of the yearbook that year was “Built to Last.”

“The early school was a school of the future,” crafted with care by the initial board members, administration, and faculty to emphasize inquisitiveness, says Popp. It was a unique value proposition with a focus on excellence across the board—academically, in the arts, in athletics, and more—educating the whole student, and drawing people to The Woodlands to live and work.

Since then, John Cooper has grown to nearly 1,300 students representing around 40 countries, a diversity of families and experiences that stimulates the intellectual and creative environment at the school, says Popp.

The campus continues to evolve to meet the needs of its students. The Rock Math + Science Center includes a 125-seat lecture hall, a rooftop garden, and computer and robotics labs. The Glenn Performing Arts Center houses a 500-seat main stage and a 125-seat practice stage. The school’s technology department includes a digital design program and an online media program with a professional-level podcast studio. The school has three visual arts studios and an art barn, with new arts and athletics facilities on the horizon. “Anytime we develop buildings or decide to add students, it always go back to the foundation of our mission,” says Yvette Aquino, a John Cooper board member for 23 years, including 6 as board chair, whose 4 children graduated from the school. “What has transpired over the decades is a lovely campus and a school of distinction.”

The school’s whole child philosophy gives students the gravitas to thrive in the world, says Popp, “an intellectual agility imbued with a sense of care.” John Cooper is one of six mentor schools in the country chosen by Yale University to implement a science-based program to enhance social and emotional intelligence, teaching students relational skills that are valuable at school, at home, and in their future workplace.

Anticipating tomorrow is an ongoing challenge, and the school is currently crafting an updated strategic plan, a new North Star, says Popp. “We are guided by a mission that we feel is relevant and resonant, both today and for the future. There will come different landscapes—industry, technology, communications.” He says John Cooper students will be ready.

“We are guided by a mission that we feel is relevant and resonant, both today and for the future." 

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