A day after he turned 16 years old – Feb. 21, 1992 – Jason Patera drove a van to The Chicago Academy for the Arts to deliver music supplies to the school.
The soon-to-be 42-year-old has essentially never left the school since he first arrived in his first trip as a legal driver. It’s also the only place he’s ever worked – starting three days after he graduated from Berklee College of Music on Aug. 14, 1998. In the past 20 years, he’s been a member of the Music Department faculty, Assistant Head of School, Principal, Acting President, Interim President, and, for the last two years, The Academy’s Head of School. In his most recent position, he has been selected as a finalist for the 2018 Golden Apple Award for Leadership.
“The school is the most important thing in my life,” said Patera, a Stickney native and West Loop resident. “The school has given my life meaning. This place has changed my perception about what it means to do something meaningful, something that really matters. I would do anything for these kids.”
Patera, who originally had dreams of becoming a rock star, graduated from Morton West High School in only three years, and he spent a great deal of his late teens at The Academy interning, playing drums, and soaking in the school’s artistic atmosphere. School officials also let Patera serve as an intern, and he would set up sound equipment, warm up the jazz band, play for a rehearsal and run the gear in The Academy’s recording studio.
Patera simply couldn’t believe a school like The Academy existed. During that time, Pam Jordan, then The Academy’s Assistant Head of School, predicted Patera would become a teacher. Patera had no plans to attend college, but Jordan insisted.
“It was clear to me from the very beginning that Jason is a leader,” said Jordan, now President and Head of School at Idyllwild Arts Academy in California. “I believe he fell in love with The Academy the very first time he entered the building. For most people, and Jason is no exception, the idea of attending a school where you get to do what you love is out of reach or nonexistent.”
Jordan also told Patera that he had a job at The Academy as soon as he graduated from college, and after taking two days off to drive home following his graduation, Patera stopped at Kohl’s for some “teacher’s clothes,” and started working at The Academy the following Monday.
Patera said the best part of The Academy is building lifelong relationships with former and current students, including Jeremy Callner. With Callner, an alumnus of The Academy, Patera ran a community music school out of his home called the Caltera School whose students won almost $10 million in scholarships from 2001-2015. Callner, now Head Data Scientist for SIX Group in Switzerland, said Patera’s success stems from his being “an extraordinary teacher who was born with an innate sense of how people learn.”
“He possesses the ability to observe someone struggling with something and feel exactly what they feel, really get inside of them,” Callner said. “He cares very deeply about his students as well.”
The Academy’s Dance Department Chair, Randy Duncan – who has worked with Patera his entire time at the school – said “Jason is curious, brilliant and thoughtful. He shows interest in the institution and not of himself.” Harriet Ross, former General Manager of the Joffrey Ballet and who volunteers as a dance instructor at The Academy, said “Jason is loyal, smart, creative, kind and knows every inch of the landscape.”
“He knows how to make people feel thanked,” Ross said. “I sat next to him at the last Head of School search, and as we interviewed the main candidates, I whispered to him, why aren’t you being considered? He said he wasn’t quite ready. I did not agree.”
Patera said every day he is wholly committed to constant improvement for himself and the school. He takes that attitude into one of his few out-of-school pursuits: running. Since Thanksgiving Day 2016, Patera has run every day at least a 5K distance outdoors, every single day. Since April 2017, he’s run outside, no matter the weather conditions.
“The idea of momentum really interests me,” said Patera, noting when he taught music he thrived on getting kids to practice thousands of days in a row. “When you do something every single day, it removes the decision making of whether or not to do it. … It can be 10 below outside. I’m going running.”
As the leader of The Academy, Patera said he never feels like it’s work.
And Patera stressed the thought of working elsewhere will never be in the cards.
“I have no intention of ever exploring that,” Patera said. “I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I walk through those doors every day almost overwhelmed with gratitude with how my life has worked out. I have the best job.”