BERWYN – Every day when he walks through the doors of The Chicago Academy for the Arts, Stickney native and former Berwyn resident Jason Patera knows he’s going to change the lives of his students.
His steadfast dedication to the private high school in downtown Chicago hasn’t gone unnoticed by students and colleagues, as Patera, head of school, recently was named as one of seven finalists for Golden Apple’s prestigious 2018 Stanley C. Golder Leadership Award.
Patera, who graduated from Morton West High School in Berwyn, said he’s honored and humbled to be nominated for the nonprofit organization’s award, which recognizes excellence in school leadership. Golden Apple also honors 10 teachers each year, in addition to one exemplary school leader.
“I’m thrilled to be recognized this year, but it’s [because of] the success of the students and teachers in this community. They’re the ones doing incredible things,” Patera said. “I have no idea who nominated me, but this is a prestigious organization that’s been around a long time and does a great job of celebrating and recognizing educators and leaders.”
The leadership award recipient will receive $10,000, half of which goes toward a project for the school, while the other half is allocated for professional development. All of the finalists for the teaching and leadership awards were recognized at a celebration Feb. 24, and the recipients will be unveiled this spring during surprise school visits.
Patera began as a teacher at The Chicago Academy for the Arts just a few days after graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1998, and he has been there ever since.
He started teaching drums and piano in the music department before working his way up to principal, and two years ago, he was named head of school.
Students at the academy spend their mornings in traditional academic classes before becoming immersed in their art courses in the afternoon. The school, which has 130 students, offers programs in dance, music, visual arts, media arts, theater and musical theater.
“I have the best job in the world,” Patera said. “I’m surrounded by people who want to be here. Everybody should know what that feels like. This is home, and it’s an enormous privilege to be a part of a community like this.”
Marypat Mulholland is on the Board of Trustees of the school, and her daughter is a senior in the visual arts program, so she knows Patera very well. She said she was “thrilled” when she learned he was a finalist because he is such a strong and confident leader.
“He makes this school his life. He walks in with a smile on his face every day and is the biggest supporter of these kids,” she said. “He has boundless energy and an undying passion. He makes it a point to be very present with all the students and knows them all as individuals, which is very special.”
Randy Duncan, chairman of the dance department, has worked with Patera for many years, and he echoed Mulholland’s sentiments. He described Patera as a “man of great integrity with an extraordinarily brilliant mind.”
“He’s definitely deserving of this award. We’re so proud of him,” Duncan said. “You can see it and feel how important this school is to him. I’ve watched him grow from chair of the music department to principal to head of school and develop into an incredible administrator who cares about each and every individual at this school.”
While he loves his job now, becoming an educator wasn’t always Patera’s plan. He said he always wanted to be a “rock star," but he was introduced to The Chicago Academy for the Arts after making a delivery there for the Berwyn record store where he worked as a high school student. He said he never left after that, helping with various tasks at the school after leaving Morton West for the day.
“I didn’t even want to go to college, but the former head of school told me I had to go to college, and when I graduated, I would have a job there as a teacher,” he said. “This has never felt like a job; it feels like a calling. Once I got a taste of what it’s like to connect to people in this way, all those other pursuits stopped being interesting. I knew I was a teacher.”