Joshua Long walked into the gym at Southside Occupational Academy (SOA) on April 3 believing a student needed help.

However, the SOA principal quickly discovered that a huge pep rally was about to begin, and he was the reason for an all-out expression of school pride.

With the student body and colleagues cheering him, Long was surprised with the presentation of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Leadership, one of the most prestigious honors an educator in Illinois can receive.

Long, a Beverly resident, is in his ninth year as principal of SOA, 7342 S. Hoyne Ave., a Chicago Public Schools facility that serves students with special needs.

The Golden Apple, he said, belongs to the entire school community.

“It’s a huge honor,” Long said. “I’m representing my entire school community. It’s for my staff, my teachers, my parents, everybody. We all are focused completely on the students. We do our best to give everybody an individualized education and get them to where they can be successful within their lives. We take that through every single thing that we do here, and to have this award is just, honestly, a crowning achievement and validation of the hard work that we do on behalf of the students. It’s not just for me; it’s for everybody.”

SOA is a transition center for students 16 to 21 years old. In preparing students for the real world, classrooms differ from those in traditional settings. Many of them have been converted into replicas of grocery stores, laundry rooms, carpentry labs, culinary arts rooms and retail spaces, where students learn important life skills.

Louie, a miniature golden-doodle, serves as a therapy dog and happily greets students in the halls.

The school also operates the SOA Center and Community Connections Hub, 2710 S. Dearborn St., where students gather every day, then utilize public transportation on their way to jobs in the real world, including at retailers and hotels.

Golden Apple officials praised Long for opening the second location, as well forming a partnership with the Anixter Center and the Safer Foundation, both of Chicago, to co-author a Kessler Signature Employment Grant, which, along with funds from the Chicago Community Trust, provided $400,000 to bridge the gap from public education to employment for people with special needs. 

Long also used the school’s physical education program to prepare students to compete in the Special Olympics.

Enrollment at SOA has increased from 175 to 300 students under his leadership.

Long said the school maintains a singular focus.

“The key is that I don’t ever waver on what’s important. Everything goes back to the students being first,” Long said. “We don’t really ask for much permission when it comes to what we do here at the school. We do what’s right for kids. We are really good at finding people to help us.”

Long is in his 19th year as an educator. He was a speech pathologist for nine years, working at 12 schools across the city; then for a year, he managed 120 speech pathologists assigned to 270 schools.

In March, SOA had another reason to celebrate when 12th-grade teacher, Angela Young, of Auburn Gresham, won a Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.

The Golden Apple Award for teachers has been presented since 1986, and the award for school leaders has been presented since 2014.

Long was one of two educational leaders from eight finalists to win, and Young was among 10 of 32 teacher finalists to be selected.

Long will receive $10,000, with $5,000 for professional development and $5,000 for a school project of his choosing. Young will receive a paid spring sabbatical at Northwestern University and a $5,000 cash award.

Both will be honored at the Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching and Leadership on May 18.

In a news release, Alan Mather, president of Golden Apple, praised Long’s achievements.

“The principal’s role is complex. Strong principals, such as Joshua Long, affirm the good people in their buildings, challenge everyone to be their best and support teachers when they take risks in the best interests of children,” said Mather. “Joshua has demonstrated the gifts to lead his school community to build student success.”

According to officials, Long was the final administrator to be notified of the award this year.

Long said he knew he was a finalist, and when he saw an educator from the suburbs win recently, he was happy for the winner. But, he would have been just fine if he didn’t win.

“Just to be a finalist is great,” Long said. “People are talking about our school, which means more families who aren’t connected to us are finding out about our school, and that means better opportunities for students who aren’t here yet. So to me, it’s just a win-win across the board.”

When he entered the gym, Long thought he was responding to a student having emotional issues. Emotions were high, but for all the right reasons as the surprise included Long’s family, Amy Rule, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s wife, who presented Long with the Golden Apple, and CPS CEO Janice Jackson.

The school, Jackson said, is impressive, and Long’s work has a wide reach.

“I’ve had an opportunity to come out and see the amazing things that he’s doing at this school,” Jackson said. “I’m even more encouraged because he’s taken that stuff across the whole school system, and more and more children across the city are having the same opportunities that Southside Occupational kids are having.”

Students waved blue and white pom-poms during the raucous celebration, and a chant quickly arose.

“Mr. Long! Mr. Long!”

Keishawn Griffin, an SOA student, thanked Long for the opportunities he provided, as well as “being there for us.”

“You put students first and look out for each and every one of us,” Griffin said. “We couldn’t ask for a better principal. We are so proud and happy that you received the Golden Apple Award.”

Once the initial shock wore off after entering the gym, Long shared many hugs and then addressed a joyous student body. Standing next to Golden Apple officials, he praised his students.

“Do you know why they’re here?” Long asked. “Because you guys are all so great.”

Nominations are being accepted for the 2020 Golden Apple Awards. For more information, visit the website at goldenapple.org.