The Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, could nominate just one principal for a national award -- out of its network of more than 250 schools -- and she looked to the suburbs for her nominee.
Judy Pappas, a Prospect Heights resident and principal of St. James Catholic School in Arlington Heights, learned of her nomination during an all-school Mass on Friday.
"I'm stunned," Pappas said "There are so many more folks deserving of this honor. Just to be nominated is a blessing for the whole school."
When one student from each grade read a statement about her leadership, she knew something was up.
"She is always around," said eighth-grader Amy Morgan. "She welcomes students into school every morning and has great expectations for them."
McCaughey had high praise for Pappas, who has been a teacher and administrator in the diocese for 37 years.
"An extraordinary administrator on every level that matters," McCaughey wrote in her nomination, "as Catholic leader, as an educational guru ... and as a woman with vision and energy."
Pappas was nominated for the Distinguished Principal Award, presented annually by the National Catholic Educational Association, based in Arlington, Va.
The criteria includes providing faith-filled leadership, instilling a schoolwide commitment to excellence, and having established ties with parents and the local community.
"It's quite competitive," says Barbara Keebler, NCEA's communications director. "Hundreds of teachers are considered each year and in the end we award only three."
Winners are narrowed down from each of the country's 12 regions and will be notified next week. The award itself will be presented at the organization's national convention in April in Pittsburgh.
Win or lose, faculty and staff members at St. James say the recognition for Pappas is a long time coming.
"Her ability to integrate those essential elements of a faith-based education, and show how meaningful that is in the current culture, does, indeed, distinguish her from many leaders," says Pat Farrell, the parish's formation director.
Pappas' colleagues point to her concentration on professional development for her faculty, which has resulted, they say, in strong standardized test scores among students, as well as recognition for St. James as a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon school.
Two years after arriving at the school, after serving as principal of Our Lady of Humility School in far North suburban Beach Park, Pappas had to keep everyone's spirits up during construction of the new school.
She also held the school together on one fateful day in 2010, when the student body was in a frenzy over the invasion of national television cameras and the return of St. James graduate and American idol winner, Lee DeWyze.
Currently, Pappas is part of the Archdiocesan Principals' Association as well as serving on the parish's strategic planning committee.