HELIX - The Helix school district is of that small-town variety where you can just as easily find the superintendent outside laying sprinkler pipes as you can find him in the office. Or maybe Darrick Cope is just that kind of superintendent.
Then again, it's summer break, and Cope has only been at his new position for two weeks. With an estimated 164 students returning Aug. 27, he has much on his mind to get ready for.
"Our main focus this year is to get the school up and running, obviously," said Cope, back at his office desk. "The small gym here is all painted up, looks nice. The high school's been repainted, at least part of it. We're just kind of working on the outside cosmetics. Make it look good, presentable."
Cope has worked for the school district for 13 years, long enough to have seen an entire class pass from kindergarten to graduation. For his first 11 years, he taught social studies (the first 10 of those spent in an often overcrowded 15-by-25-foot classroom) and physical education. For the past two years, Cope split his time and responsibilities between teaching and being dean of students, a challenging balance.
What he wasn't expecting, however, was his immediate promotion to superintendent and principal.
"The ultimate plan was to have Barbara (Ceniga) go at least one more year," said Cope, referring to his predecessor. "Was it a surprise? I think it was."
An administrative shakeup during the second half of last year began when the school board voted in January not to renew Ceniga's contract after the year. Although that decision was rescinded, it already had laid the groundwork for strained relations.
What resulted was the resignation of board member Tom Winn (whose seat remains unfilled), an attempted recall of Board Chairman Jay Spratling and, ultimately, the retirement of Ceniga.
"Well, I supported (Ceniga) 100 percent. And I supported the board as much as I could. And I kind of just put my head down and let it go," said Cope. "I just tried to stay clear of that whole issue."
When Ceniga announced her decision to leave, and with Cope finishing up the necessary certification, the remaining board members tentatively decided to offer him the job.
His new job isn't the only administrative change for the new school year. Spratling is now vice chair and Jim Williams has taken over as chairman. David Talley, who has been a board member before, has a seat once again. Paul "Wally" Rogers, a Pendleton business owner, has joined the board for the first time. Cindy Wood will be the school's new administrative assistant.
"There's a lot to learn," said Cope. "And so we'll all learn together."
Cope and the board members had their first meeting on Wednesday, during which they welcomed the new members who were present.
"We're pretty excited to kind of turn over a new leaf," said Williams, expressing his optimism with Cope's new role.
"He's willing to go out and really stay on top of facilities," Williams said. "If there's a project that needs to get done, and he's not happy with it, he'll step in and do it himself."
Perhaps the biggest impression Cope has made, however, is as a teacher.
Helix resident Jenifer van Wechel, 23, remembers Cope as a fun, challenging and one-on-one teacher. "I don't know a single person who didn't like him," she said.
"We had major reports monthly," she said, recalling one in particular. "I learned a lot about Italy and I want to go because of the report."
Even when the outlook of her pending graduation looked grim, she credited Cope and an English teacher for going out of their way to push her along and give her a fighting chance.
She also was candid about Cope's obsession with the Minnesota Vikings: "If you wanted to get on his good side, it was all about the Vikings."
Behind his desk, Cope still has Vikings memorabilia, including a purple horned hat for game days.
"One rule is (students) have to salute my shrine," said Cope, who has admired the team ever since watching them on TV as a child. "I always liked the horns on the head."
As for managing from his new position, Cope said he follows policy and empowers teachers.
"It's their classroom," he said. "As long as they're taking care of their business, doing what they should be doing in the classroom, I'm not gonna be in there."
He desires the same treatment from the board: "I hope they wouldn't be micromanagers. I don't think they will be," he added.
Cope also plans to raise awareness of facility issues, hoping to expand the school's crowded weight room and make bathrooms wheelchair accessible. He says the high school building soon will need to be re-roofed before causing more expensive damages later, something that may have to pass as a bond measure in November 2008.
This year, Cope is selling his home in Athena and moving with his wife and three kids (all of whom will be enrolled in his school) to Helix.
"This way I can walk home. And I can always come back after the kids go to bed," he said. "Or I can come change sprinkler pipe if I need to."
Originally, Cope planned to teach at a large district. That was until he got the offer for a one-year contract in Helix.
"I thought, well, I could either substitute teach for another year or two or whoever knows how long, get my 6:30-in-the-morning phone call," said Cope, "or I could come out here and work a year and get some experience. I came out here and that was 14 years ago."