A Portage Life in the Spotlight: Michael ‘Mike’ Sopko

A Portage Life in the Spotlight: Michael ‘Mike’ Sopko

Michael “Mike” Sopko has been the principal of Kyle Elementary School for 10 years now, and his mind is continuously racing to find ways to make positive impacts on the lives of children and families in the community.

When Sopko is not fueling the minds of local children with knowledge, he is a drag racing photographer. Additionally, if he is not behind the camera, he is behind the wheel. Sopko has been racing his own car for the past few years. 

“I'm a second generation drag racing photographer. My son is 14 years old and my dad and I trained him to take pictures,” said Sopko. “I've been a photojournalist for an online magazine and in 2016 I got my racing license to drive. 2021 was my first season with a car we had spent a few years putting together and tested in 2021 and I've been competing with it the last two years.”

Having lived in the Region his whole life, Sopko, a Merrillville native, attended Purdue University Calumet (now Purdue University Northwest) where he studied elementary education. 

Family was a deciding factor in both hobby and career path. Sopko spoke of the importance of family excitedly.

“I went to John Wood Elementary in Merrillville, and the school just felt like a family to me, and I really loved that aspect of it. That interested me as part of the reason to go into education in elementary specifically. The other reason was having the opportunity of working with kids and making positive impacts on their life,” said Sopko.

Sopko didn’t always aim to work in education, though. As he grew up and went to high school, he realized he enjoyed helping children learn, and knew he wanted to do that for the rest of his life.

His career has already spanned two decades in the Portage community. Prior to becoming principal at Kyle Elementary, Sopko taught fourth and fifth grade at Jones Elementary.

As an educator, the positive impacts he has made on students and families have been able to make themselves known to him throughout his career. For him, that is everything.

“The word I use all the time when I talk to my staff is impact – the impact that we make on students in this profession. To me, the impact we make on students is most easily felt either from a parent or years down the road, from a student coming back saying there’s an impact you've had on their lives,” Sopko said. “Anytime I've received something heartfelt from a parent or a student that has shared something like that, it will make my eyes well up and make me realize I chose the right profession and I'm doing the right things.”

Sopko revealed he continued learning, even after graduating from college. He too requires the fuel of knowledge.

“When I was hired into Jones, I went there eyes wide open, and that became an extension of my family there: the students I had and their families and the staff  I worked with. I thought, ‘I think what we do here is an important experience. What we've done here is important all these years,’” said Sopko. “I graduated from college and that certified me to become an elementary school teacher, but I came to Portage and they really furthered my education and really professionalized what I needed to do in the classroom. It really became another learning environment that led me into leadership roles.”

Although being an educator is rooted so deeply in Sopko as a person, he takes time to travel and participate in his other passion alongside his father and son whenever possible.

“I'll still go out to events. I covered two events last year with my son and one of them even with my dad. Sometimes there are three generations of Mike Sopkos all shooting pictures trackside,” said Sopko. “My son and I did an event in Iowa last year where we didn't compete, but we just went to take pictures and I wrote an article and then did another one in Michigan in August.”

Sopko’s mind is constantly pushing the pedal to the metal and sometimes he needs to remember to turn off the ignition on his work brain because he cares so deeply about his work.

“Your time working isn't necessarily just the time you're within the building. It is something that I think - education in totality - consumes you. It becomes a part of who you are. Even though I might not be in the building, I might feel like my mind is constantly working and thinking about what's going on at school,” said Sopko. “Sometimes I have to remind myself when I get home that I need to turn it off to be able to do things with my family.”

Growing up, Sopko says he only knew of Portage as a competitor when he played soccer while going to school in Merrillville, but as his career cruised forward, the Portage community worked its way into his heart.

“I'm very appreciative of the opportunity that we have to make a positive difference in our students’ and our families’ lives. I think what we do here in school goes well beyond just math, reading and writing. There is so much that we are doing in so many ways to positively impact our students and their families. I'm appreciative of the opportunity,” said Sopko.

Sopko, or, “Mike” as adorned on his drag car, is a positive driving force within the Portage community, willing to help kids cross the finish line with flying colors.