CHINATOWN — The 51-year-old school building doesn’t contain a gym or much of an outdoor play space for kids.
“Yet inside the walls we do some thoroughly amazing things and stretch the dollar like no one else does,” said Phyllis Cavallone, principal of St. Therese Chinese Catholic School.
Cavallone, 42, was named a winner in Tech & Learning’s Leader of the Year awards for her work in spurring innovation at the school, the Midwest's only Chinese Catholic school.
Daniel Foertsch, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Director of Data and Research who nominated Cavallone for the trade publication's award, said she's been instrumental in turning the school around after taking over in 2004, when “there was teetering enrollment and questions about the school’s vitality.”
Now, St. Therese — which enrolls roughly 300 preschool through eighth-grade students, 70 percent of whom are Chinese-American — is consistently highlighted as a model of academic excellence. It’s been recognized as a finalist in Intel’s “School of Distinction” for mathematics instruction, and last year won the U.S. Department of Education’s designation as a Blue Ribbon School. And plans are underway for a major school expansion.
“She might be too modest to say it, but she was the catalyst to make it all happen. It's quite the success story," Foertsch said.
Inside her office, Cavallone boasted of the school’s language curriculum that takes kids through Mandarin, Spanish and English lessons. She glowed over a shipment of new high-tech graphic calculators and of preschoolers checking into class using an iPad app. And she all but bragged about the teachers who lead the students to “off the charts” test scores.
Despite all the recent praise, Cavallone, a Beverly resident, said the school still flies under the radar in Chicago.
“I love how no one really knows us,” she said.
That’s beginning to change. The school is drawing interest from parents in the South Loop, Bridgeport and other neighborhoods, with a wait list hovering around 400.
"As soon as a baby is born we’re seeing people putting that baby on the wait list," school marketing chief Tauna Kruse said. "It’s just amazing."