After a brief retirement, Warren Popp, 80, can’t stay out of the classroom

Warren Popp can’t stop helping kids.

Popp, 80, retired as an educator in 1993. Just three months later, he returned to school as a counselor after a call for help from Campos Verdes Adult School.

These days – 56 years after he started teaching – Popp can be found in the lab at Keema High School, his head of curly white hair bobbing up and down as he patiently explains math to teenagers in jeans, hooded sweatshirts and tennis shoes.

The 580 students attending the alternative high school at McClellan Park meet with teachers once a week, spending the other days working independently at home. Some are behind on their credits or have jobs. Others are pregnant, and a few are caretakers for an ill parent. More than a handful have suffered bullying at traditional schools or come from traumatic family situations.

They come to the lab for help with schoolwork or for a quiet place to study. Popp was in high demand Wednesday from students six decades younger than him.

“He’s a good teacher, a good tutor,” said Aaron Estrada, 20, whom Popp helped with a difficult algebra problem.

Popp started his career in education as a math teacher at Del Paso Junior High in 1957. Eight years later, he became a counselor at Grant Union High School and then Foothill High School until his brief retirement in 1993.

After returning as a counselor at Campos Verdes and Keema, Popp became a math tutor about five years ago, reducing his hours to three days a week.

His influence has spanned generations. “Mr. Popp is one of the most decent, genuinely kindhearted people that there is,” said Darren Miller, Foothill High class of 1983.

Students at Foothill High often came from families where the “richest among us was middle class,” Miller said. Popp’s job wasn’t so much preparing students for college as it was tending to the emotional needs of the students, he said.

Miller said Popp helped him through a difficult senior year. “I was the valedictorian, and I thought I’d have to enlist in the Army. Mr. Popp got me through it,” Miller said. “It was his demeanor and his constant reassurance. It was his faith in the universe.”

When Miller became a math teacher – he now works at Rio Americano High School – Popp and former Foothill High principal Richard Nelson took Miller to a Denny’s restaurant one day and “told me how to be a good math teacher. Seventeen years later and I’m still using their guidance.”

Popp won the prestigious Arthur S. Marmaduke Award as California’s high school counselor of the year in August. He was feted in a ceremony at the California Student Aid Commission attended by many of his former students.

A letter from Lani (Schneider) Epright, who was in a seventh-grade class Popp taught in 1958, brought him to tears Wednesday. Epright wrote to congratulate Popp on winning the Marmaduke Award. “You prepared me well for my following years enrolled in the San Juan Unified School District,” she wrote. The Fair Oaks woman also became a teacher, working in the former North Sacramento School District.

“As teachers, we don’t know the impact we have on students,” Popp said. “Normally, teachers go about their business and teach and hope for the best.”

Graduation is another topic that can start Popp’s tears flowing. “I look forward to it,” he said of the annual ceremony. “I see kids that would not have graduated, and there they are.”

Popp exchanges emails and cards and meets often with former pupils, who say the relationship has evolved over the years from student and teacher to friend.

“We’re more like friends that went to the same school,” said Terry Lager, Grant High School class of 1968.

Popp was Lager’s counselor at Del Paso Junior High School in the 1960s and then at Grant High School through graduation. “He was a good counselor for us. He was a great man,” Lager said.

In July, picnickers at the 30th reunion of Foothill High School’s class of 1983 put down their hamburgers and root beer and ran to meet Popp when he arrived, Miller said. The former counselor is mobbed at reunions by former students. “He’s like a rock star,” Miller said.

Popp and his wife, Patricia, live in Sacramento. Three of their four children are teachers. The Popps have 16 grandchildren.

“He’s a cheerful guy,” Miller said. “I think somehow he found the key to being personally happy and content.”

Popp has no plans to retire anytime soon, despite two heart operations and two steep flights of stairs up to the school.

“I’ll stop working when I can’t get up the stairs,” he said.