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South Loop School Celebrates History-Making Double Golden Apple Winners

Students swarmed teachers Helen Chan and Rick Coppola as both won the prestigious Golden Apple award at a surprise pep rally.

South Loop Elementary teachers Helen Chan (left) and Rick Copolla (right) were surprised with the Golden Apple Award at school Wednesday.
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SOUTH LOOP — Two South Loop Elementary teachers made Golden Apple history Wednesday.

Staff, students and family members were on hand to surprise teachers Helen Chan and Rick Coppola with a special pep rally at the school, 1601 S. Dearborn St. It is the first time in history two people at the same school have received a prestigious Golden Apple award in the same year.

The veteran educators received rockstar treatment as they walked into the school’s packed gymnasium, where they were met with thunderous applause and giant cardboard checks bearing their names. South Loop’s cheerleading team also performed a special routine in their honor.

It was a particularly unexpected moment for Coppola, a seventh-grade language arts teacher who was named a Golden Apple finalist in 2011 and 2017.

“I’m well-versed in making it to the finals and not winning, so this is all surreal,” Coppola said. “I got a call the last two times I lost, but I didn’t get a call this time, so I just thought the process had changed. Then the fact that we were both finalists … you approach it with a bit of trepidation because [the award] might not be for you.”

Coppola, a married father of two, has been a teacher for 12 years and is pursuing his doctorate at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Chan, a fourth-grade math teacher who has been at the school since 2009, said she had a feeling “something was happening” based on clips she’s seen of other winners on the Golden Apple Foundation website.

“I’d see the clock on the wall in the videos and note the time, like, ‘OK, it’s happening in the morning.’ It was like I was trying to investigate to figure out if it was going to happen to us,” Chan said.

Chan and Coppola credit the school’s administrators with providing a solid foundation for teachers and students to grow. Coppola said the environment allows him creative and artistic freedom to design curriculum that “honors” students.

Coppola — who is also a Maya Angelou Teacher Award recipient —uses poetry as an entry point to and draws on his own experience with tragedy at a tender age to connect with his middle schoolers in an authentic way, he said.

“My father passed away at the end of sixth grade, so I approached my seventh-grade year really trying to fold in and make myself invisible,” Coppola said. “The grief I had was marked in the sense that I didn’t identify anyone in my classroom with similar experience. So I understand what this period of adolescence can bring in terms of students and the powerful ways they experience their lives.”

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
South Loop Elementary teacher and Golden Apple winner Rick Copolla (c) is joined by his family and fellow Golden Apple winner Helen Chan (r) on stage during a school pep rally Wednesday.

Chan draws on her adolescent experience, as well, when trying to reach her students. She grimaced when recalling how she was expelled from high school after “playing hooky” one too many times. Getting accepted into another high school was a saving grace, she said.

“I was like a typical student who tries her best but still fell apart. I just want to be there for other kids who have it together one day and then don’t have it together the next,” Chan said.

The teachers also see the South Loop’s diversity as a strength. Three-fourths of South Loop’s 804 students are of color. The neighborhood school is ranked No. 104 for middle schools and No. 110 for elementary schools citywide, according to the U.S. News and World Report.

Chan and Coppola were among 30 finalists for this year’s Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. Ten finalists were from Illinois, including Marquette Elementary School teacher Anquineice Brown and St. Andrew School educator Rachel Werderits.

Each will receive a $5,000 check and a spring sabbatical provided by Northwestern University.

The two will also become Fellows of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, a community of veteran educators who will prepare the next generation of teachers who are part of the Golden Apple Scholars and Accelerators programs that address the teacher shortage in Illinois.

The nomination period for the 2024 Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching and Leadership is open. More information is available online.

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