Here, There, Everywhere
Like many young musicians, drummer Jason Patera ’98 dreamed of a career as a rock star. But the day after he got his driver’s license, a cruise through Chicago’s River West neighborhood to an arts academy radically altered his plans. The music store that he worked for sent him on a delivery run to the Chicago Academy for the Arts. Not to be confused with the publicly funded Chicago High School for the Arts, the academy is one of only four independent arts high schools in the nation.
“I thought, “How could this be a high school?” Patera recalls. “There’s no chain link fence around it to keep people in or out like at my high school. Everyone at the academy looked so happy; the students really wanted to be there.” Patera was smitten with the place and began ditching classes at his high school in Stickney, IL, and hung out after school to spend as much time as possible at the academy. He helped with setting up sound equipment, playing drums for musical productions, and after graduating from Berklee, became a full-time teacher there in 1998. Fast-forward to June 2016, and Patera was named Head of School (a position previously called headmaster). “I felt like I’d won the lottery,” Patera says. “It’s the only gig I’ve ever really wanted since I was 16 years old.”
The academy’s offerings include music, visual arts, dance, theater, and musical theater in addition to academic classes in science, math, technology, and English. The small enrollment (of 150 students) makes for a tight-knit community of students, teachers, and administrators. “It’s very easy for me to know everyone in the building,” Patera says. “I interact with them all the time and every teacher has the opportunity to really know each of the students and become mentors to them. No one is anonymous here.”
For the younger Patera, a career in education seemed unlikely. “I didn’t think going to college was in the cards for me,” he reveals. “I was thinking my band would make it. I knew about Berklee and that Steve Vai, Branford Marsalis, and members of Aerosmith had gone there. So Berklee was the place I would go if I decided to.” The academy’s principal Pam Jordan and music department chair Shannon Greene ’90 spotted Patera’s potential. “Pam said she thought I was a natural-born teacher and told me I needed to go to college,” Patera says. “She made me finish my application to Berklee and told me that after I graduated I could teach at the academy.”
At Berklee, Patera was a professional music major and took courses in contemporary writing and production, education, and music business. He also dove into student life and together with a few friends, founded the student newspaper The Groove. Patera was drawn to teaching but didn’t want to be a band director or college professor.
“As soon as I got into teaching full-time at the academy and at the community music school I started,” he says, “I knew that my main career trajectory would be education.” Patera began by directing jazz ensembles, teaching private lessons, and music theory classes. He later became the head of the academy’s music department and then its principal. Along the way he boosted his résumé with a master’s degree in educational leadership from Northeastern Illinois University.
The academy’s staff as well as outsiders are deeply committed to the success of the school and its students. The energy on campus is infectious, and donor contributions enable two thirds of the students to receive financial aid. Many graduates have gone on to successful careers in theater, film, music, and non-arts careers. Since 1981, some 60 or more have graduated and enrolled at Berklee—including hit songwriter Justin Tranter ’01 and Grammy-winning vocalist Lalah Hathaway ’90.
Patera has tremendous passion for his vocation. “Working with teenagers as they discover who they are is awesome,” he says. “The real magic happens as we help them learn to navigate this world, find their identity, and figure out what matters to them. I don’t know that you can do that as effectively with any other age group. I love being here; this doesn’t feel like a job to me.”