HARRISBURG -- Natalie Fry is an educational pioneer for southern Illinois.
Fry, the principal of East Side School in Harrisburg, is the first administrator in the region to win a prestigious Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Leadership, according to the Golden Apple Foundation's President Alan Mather.
She's also only the second educator overall in southern Illinois to win the award.
And, in the age of having vast sources of information at the touch of a button, Fry's leadership is what education in Illinois needs, Mather said.
"We need leaders in education who know how to determine fact from fiction, look at the data and facts with a critical eye and make critical decisions," he said.
"Something Natalie also understands, is the importance of social and emotional learning," Mather said.
Fry said she and her staff at East Side are committed to that side of education.
"Social and emotional needs are high on our priority list at East Side and in our district," she said.
Fry said remote learning is more challenging for teachers and students, especially as teachers there focus on not just education, but making sure children's basic needs are met. Only when children have adequate food, shelter and security can real learning begin.
The emphasis is on having a real connection with students, Fry added.
"That means learning their name, where they're from, what their interests are, and incorporating that into learning," she said. "With COVID-19, we lost that, though we're trying to stay connected with as many students as possible."
Mather said one take-away from the current remote learning experiment is that it has proved it's not a suitable replacement for traditional educational models for K-12 students, although it works in a pinch.
"More than anything else, this has defeated the argument to just do virtual learning," Mather said. "There certainly are good reasons for it, and for adults who are working on a college degree, it makes sense. Maybe they have a full-time job or other reason to use online learning.
"But when you're talking about children, socialization is an essential part of learning. They have to learn how to get along with others, and develop empathy."
Traditionally, the Golden Apple Foundation makes a surprise visit to the school of the winning educator.
This time, Fry was surprised when the announcement came during an interview with local television station WSIL.
Fry, as part of her award, receives both $5,000 for her and $5,000 for her school. She says she's hoping to build on her success at East Side.
"I really hope this opportunity leads to mentoring opportunities for myself and young aspiring teachers, and also those teachers who want to become administrators. I want to help them," Fry said.
"There's a teacher shortage. That's a real crisis for our area. I hope to inspire future teachers and future teacher leaders. They are the rock stars. They do it every day."
She credits teachers and staff at East Side for her Golden Apple.
"I never thought I'd get something like this. Many people work hard all their lives and don't get validation for it," Fry said. "It's motivation for me, and I'm not done yet. I'm going to keep going.
"At East Side, we have a pretty amazing group of people. We're not a test score, and that's how we approach standardized testing. We're going to teach our kids what they need to learn, and our test scores continue to go up."