As far as history teacher John Silva knows, Lindblom Principal Alan Mather has only cried twice at the school.

The first time was at the graduation of the class that was with him when he reopened the school in 2005, two years after CPS closed it because of low achievement and other problems. Under Renaissance 2010, Mather re-opened Lindblom with one class of freshmen. “It was a very special group,” Silva says. “They had a tight relationship.”

Silva says Mather was so emotional he could barely get through the ceremony.

The second time Mather cried was Wednesday morning, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel walked onto the stage at Lindblom to congratulate him as the first-ever recipient of the Stanley C. Golder Award, a new Golden Apple Award that honors principals.

When Emanuel arrived, Mather was in the middle of an assembly honoring seniors. Each senior got the chance to go to the podium and announce the college they planned to attend. The crowded auditorium erupted in cheers.  

The assembly culminated with the surprise award. Mather told the students, “You make my job so much easier. This is a wonderful place to come.”

Golden Apple officials on Wednesday also began their annual ritual of surprising teachers with the prestigious award. Teachers from Edgebrook, Pierce and Crown schools, as well as three suburban teachers, received the awards, with more to be announced on Thursday. Teachers who win get to take a sabbatical for a semester to study at Northwestern University, plus a $3,000 cash award.

Selective school facing challenges

Golden Apple President Dominic Belmonte said the organization decided to present an award to principals because “they are the ones that make great teachers operate well.” Mather gets $10,000, plus $2,000 for professional development and $8,000 for a project at the school.

Mather says he is not sure what the school project will be, but two ideas have popped into his head. One is to buy laptops for teachers, many of whom must move from classroom to classroom as the school’s enrollment has grown. Tasks such as taking attendance would be easier with laptops.

The second idea is to outfit a lab focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning.

Lindblom is a selective enrollment schools, but it has some unique challenges because it sits in Englewood, one of the city’s poorest, most violent neighborhoods. Top students from the community often don’t choose Lindblom because they want to get out of the area, Mather says. Some residents resent Lindblom and consider it isolated from the rest of the neighborhood. And parents from outside the area, worried about safety in the community, sometimes hesitate to send their children to Lindblom.

But under Mather’s leadership, Lindblom is making a name for itself as one of the city’s destination schools. It is now ranked Number 14 in the state by U.S. News and World Report. It has many special features, such as the only Arabic program in the state for non-native speakers. The school also offers Mandarin.

Before taking over at Lindblom, Mather was an assistant principal at Northside College Prep.

Lindblom Assistant Principal Wayne Bevis says that Mather does a wonderful job recruiting students, including being an active participant on CPSobsessed, a blog that caters to parents who fret about getting their children into selective enrollment schools.

Students say that during orientation, Mather assures parents that the school takes special care to address safety concerns, offering shuttles and having safe passage workers at bus stops.

They say the opportunities they have gotten at the school are unparalleled. Mayra Patino says she is going to China this summer, with a scholarship to pay expenses. Celeste Barajos just came back from helping to build a school in Haiti.

But what they like most about Mather is his personal style. On Halloween, he rides his unicycle and throws candy to the students. And he greets the students every day at the door, even when it is cold or raining.

“He knows every student’s name,” says one young woman. Other students nod in agreement.

(Mather is a member of Catalyst Chicago’s editorial advisory board.)

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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