South Side new principal Mahone

Christian Mahone, the new principal at South Side Elementary School, poses for a photo in his office Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, at the school in Champaign.

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The way CHRISTIAN MAHONE became South Side Elementary’s new principal was kind of a whirlwind.

Earlier this summer, he was juggling three jobs, trading one right after the other in the Springfield school district — administrative intern at Washington Middle School, acting assistant principal of an elementary summer school and principal of Xtreme Summer Academy.

“For me, at that time, something was telling me there was a need for a change of pace,” Mahone said. “I need to fill my capacity more.”

A friend told him he should move to Champaign, but Mahone, who prefers the elementary level, was skeptical. There were no openings for an elementary principal at the time. Then Bill Taylor retired after 11 years at South Side.

“I really do think it was sent by God,” Mahone said. “I went out on a limb and I applied.”

What happened next, he said, was “crazy.”

“Literally, they called me two days later ... and they wanted me to come in and interview,” he remembers. “So I said, ‘OK. When?’ And they said, ‘Tomorrow.’ At that point, I was pretty broke because I was helping my family out a lot (financially). I was taking money out of my savings to put gas in my car to get back and forth because I was not going to miss out on this opportunity.

“I did the interview, drove home, and I was like, ‘I feel pretty good about it. We’ll see what happens.’ They called me back the next day — I remember it was 4:47 p.m. on the head. They said, ‘Hey, Mr. Mahone ... we want to bring you back again for level two.’ So I was like, ‘When?’ And they said, ‘Tomorrow.’

“Imagine — I was still broke. But I made it a point to get out here. They called me back a couple days later, and they wanted to offer me the job. I’ve been on the job since July 1.”

Here’s more from the new principal at South Side Elementary, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago:

My work ethic comes from ... my father. He did not play no games. I have seven brothers and sisters; my dad would work two jobs — work 12-, 14-hour days just to be sure there would be food on the table. It could be as simple as a bologna sandwich, but he would make sure that we ate.

He always somehow, always, always, always had enough energy to come home and talk about, ‘How’s your day, son? How did school go today?’ Seeing my dad hustle and grind ... gave me that strong work ethic I have today.

And from my mom ... I get a lot of my compassion, a lot of my people skills. I’m still a mama’s boy — I love her to the death of me. She is literally my best friend; I talk to her about everything.

Sometimes, she’s like ‘Son. Way too much information.’ When I was doubting my own capabilities, it was my mom that pushed me through.

One thing you should know about my parents is ... this year, they will have been together for 37 years. A common misconception, especially where I come from, is that you don’t have two parents at home. Especially with black families.

I have seven brothers and sisters, and we all have the same mom and dad. That is one of the things I pride myself in. My dad and my mom have been in my life for my entire life.

Education was ... at the forefront of my household. Growing up, we couldn’t afford to have a computer, but (my dad) would make sure to save enough money to have the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. That was our research right there, because it wasn’t always safe to walk the seven blocks to get to the public library because of all the gang activity.

My parents couldn’t afford to send me to (college), but because my dad had put education at the forefront, I knew I had to do something to keep pushing. I knew I was smart enough to get an academic scholarship. I never liked school; I was just really, really good at it. I was like, ‘I’ve got to do well in school. This is where it’s at.’ So I was hyper-focused.

My dad was recently down, and he (reminded me) of when we didn’t have the lights on, and I would spend (my) last few dollars on candles, and I’d sit there and make sure I got my homework done. I knew I had to hyper-focus, and that was how I paid my way through school: scholarships.

After graduating from Knox College ... I student-taught in Chicago, then started my career in Galesburg. By the end of my third year in Galesburg, I was ready to move on.

At the time, they didn’t have many black teachers. They hired us right away — me and four of my friends, and we were all young black males. But they weren’t so nice to us at all. We were doing things that 15-, 20-year vets couldn’t do: We started seeing discipline numbers go down. We started seeing kids show up to school more. Things they could not do, we were able to do in our first year.

The kids loved seeing us in the classroom because they saw someone who looked like them. Every year I taught in Galesburg, I was 100 percent the first black teacher they had, and the first male teacher they had. So I was like a dynamic duo just being me and myself. So that is why I stayed in Galesburg for that long.

But opportunities for growth became minimal, and there was just not a lot of support at the district level and not a lot of support from my colleagues.

My goals for South Side Elementary include ... definitely making sure we’re closing the opportunity gap. Over the next year or so, my plan is to redo our vision, our mission for South Side. What a vision was five, 10 years ago has to change because over time, society changes. We’ve got to be in-tune, cognizant and mindful and flexible in the way that we do things.

I’ve asked, ‘Why aren’t we a blue ribbon school?’ That is one of my goals — find out what it takes and to start putting together those systems to be that level because all of my teachers are high capacity. They have laid the foundation, and my job is to figure out how to elevate them and bring them to their next level.

You will never catch me ... just literally sitting in my office, because that’s not the kind of administrator I am. I don’t like sitting. I’m like the Energizer bunny. ... I’ll be dancing with the kids. I can’t do the newest dance moves, but I love to dance. It’s how I keep myself energized.

When it comes to heroes ... I’m a huge, huge (Barack) Obama fan. When he won the election in 2008, there were 800 (Knox College) students who stormed the streets of Galesburg. We were running down Main Street — everyone was happy to have the first black president. You’d think the motorists would be mad, but they got out and celebrated with us.

One of my dreams came true ... I met the president. He came to Galesburg (for a commencement speech), and I said the pledge of allegiance before he spoke. He came around and talked to everyone after.

The idea of me meeting him and shaking his hand was literally a dream come true.

When I shook his hand, I was like, ‘He just transferred some power over to me.’ It was one of the most thrilling times of my life.


Lyndsay Jones is a reporter covering education at The News-Gazette. Her email is ljones@news-gazette, and you can follow her on Twitter (@__lyndsayjones).