'Just lucky to be part of it': WW South High School science teacher stunned by Golden Apple award
Wheaton Warrenville South High School science teacher Phil Culcasi accepted his Golden Apple award in typical Phil Culcasi fashion.
He credited others.
In a surprise ceremony Friday in Wheaton -- and with the entire school staff and student body gathered in the gymnasium for the first time since before the pandemic -- Culcasi walked through the door to the roar of the crowd with a stunned smile on his face.
If that wasn't enough, the fog machine, light show, exploding sparklers and video tribute showed how much Tiger Nation appreciates Culcasi.
Culcasi, a 20-year teaching veteran at WW South, is one of only 10 high school teachers in the state among 400 nominees being honored this year by the Golden Apple Foundation. Considering high school teachers are honored by the Foundation once every three years, the moment was even more special.
"This is about the teachers in this building and the kids in the building," Culcasi said. "I'm just lucky to be a part of it."
Principal Scott McDermott informed Culcasi's wife, Tracy, of the news last week. It was tough for her to keep the secret, especially after she told their 17-year-old daughters, Elizabeth and Abigail. But they kept him thinking Friday's event was just your average everyday assembly.
"It was a little tough, but it's been fun," Tracy Culcasi said. "It's very deserving."
In addition to Culcasi's family and Community Unit District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler, leaders from the Golden Apple Foundation also were on hand to congratulate Culcasi. Foundation President Alan Mather praised Culcasi for making students "feel seen, heard and valued."
Culcasi will receive $5,000 and a spring sabbatical provided by Northwestern University. He'll become a Fellow of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, which helps mentor future teachers in the Golden Apple Scholars and Accelerators programs.
"I'm most proud to know that he's going to be able to shape and influence the next generation of teachers," Schuler said. "It's a great representation of our staff and also the caliber of teacher he is."
Colleagues said Culcasi's chemistry classroom is known for its welcoming environment and learning based on modeling, exploration, discovery, celebration and calculated risk-taking. In 2019, Culcasi was honored by the American Modeling Teachers Association with the prestigious David Hestenes Award.
"I'm proud and in awe of the opportunity just to be around him," McDermott said. "We have an incredible team here, and he is symbolic of who we are and who we aspire to be."
For all the thunderous applause Culcasi received on Friday, perhaps the biggest cheer came at the end of his brief speech to the crowd when he addressed his fourth- and sixth-period classes with some beautiful words: "There's no homework this weekend. ... Let's go Tigers!"
"This is overwhelming," he said. "It's just tremendous to have the whole school here together again."