For Principal Joshua Long, one lightbulb moment happened in the school dish room.

Rather than have his students learn to wash dishes in a classroom setting at Southside Occupational Academy, which specializes in helping students with special needs prepare for life, Long decided to repurpose the school dish room for learning.

“Why are we going to try to have some decontextualized lesson on how to wash a dish when we can set up a station-based approach?” said Long, who was trained as a speech therapist before becoming a principal.

That’s only one of many ways Southside has tailored approaches to educating the special needs population his school serves. Long also overhauled his school’s curriculum, implemented a less punitive discipline process and won funding for students with disabilities to take part in job training.

For these and other efforts, Long won the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Leadership, a prestigious statewide honor.

“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 Alan Mather, a former Chicago principal and top school district administrator who is now president of Golden Apple.

Since 1985, the Golden Apple award has honored educators who do important work but may not always receive the recognition they deserve. The honor also comes with a cash award of $10,000, with $5,000 going toward the recipient’s professional development and $5,000 to the school for a project.

We caught up with the principal Thursday, the day after he was surprised with the award announcement by students, staff, and a camera.

Why single out your school for this honor?

We have crafted a school from the ground up, 100 percent centered on student needs. We’ve expanded the population. Historically this school has been a safe space for students with moderate intellectual disabilities.

But based on my background as a speech pathologist and working all across Chicago, I was aware of so many other disability categories including autism and Down syndrome and all the students I know who could be successful in this environment. I have been working nonstop to let every single student be successful and master skills.

If I could pinpoint one thing, it would be that we are completely dedicated to our students, don’t believe in an errorless learning environment, teach them through those mistakes, see those students for who they are, and never give up.

What is some of the work you are most proud of at Southside Occupational Academy?

I am in favor of looking at the students in front of you and using the environment of your school to be an instructional tool.

Our school had a dish room, so why are we going to try to have some decontextualized lesson on how to wash a dish when we can set up a station-based approach? That concept has been a catalyst for us to think about setting up every room as a functional learning lab.

Chicago is under a state monitor for providing inadequate special education services.  What is a fundamental first step for the district in helping this population of students?

As a speech pathologist, I have been at 12 schools in my first nine years, then downtown as a manager representing 120 speech pathologists across 270 schools. I’ve come across so many different schools, it’s like our strength is our biggest weakness.

There is so much variance among schools, it takes the right school leader to capitalize on the mission of the school and drive it forward. But I saw classes that were not being run effectively and just weren’t as rigorous as some of the other schools I’ve been in.

If I had to use that knowledge, I would say that the biggest thing is establishing equity for all students no matter which school or neighborhood they are in.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

My students. They are wonderful. Each and every one of them. I know them all, and they bring a smile to my face every day. On days I don’t have a meeting, I greet them when I arrive and when I leave. They are genuine souls and I am glad I can share in their path and contribute to their lives to be as independent as possible within their communities upon graduation. It is very humbling and a wonderful thing.

Behind every great leader is a great team. I could not do this work without all of my amazing paraprofessionals and teachers who have built a team. Everyone is 100 percent focused on the students. (Read a Q&A with a teacher at Long’s school here.)