October 4, 2016 | 4 p.m.
By Jenny Hudalla ’15, content specialist
While most educators were preparing to wrap up the school year, Ed.D. student and elementary school principal Leona Derden was sitting at the White House in a crowd of her colleagues, trying not to “ugly cry.”
During the White House Turnaround Arts Talent Show on May 25, First Lady Michelle Obama publicly thanked Derden for her transformative work at Northport Elementary in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and her commitment to the arts. “I couldn’t believe it,” Derden says. “I never thought we’d be chosen—over all the other schools—to be highlighted. It was a phenomenal experience.”
Thanks to Derden, Northport was one of 68 schools nationwide to earn a spot in the competitive Turnaround Arts program, a reform initiative that uses an arts-infused curriculum to cultivate confidence, critical thinking, and creativity in students at underperforming schools. For Northport, that meant inviting a music teacher to break down rap lyrics in English class. It meant hiring full-time staff to teach drama and dance. And it meant securing donations from Target and Home Depot so that students could paint murals and plant flowers on school grounds.
In just two years, Northport has reduced its yearly suspensions from 200 to 41, and it has been removed from the state’s list of schools that are furthest behind. Once, after a musical production of Annie, a fifth-grade boy approached Derden and said, “Principal D, thank you so much for choosing me to be in the play. My fear of public speaking isn’t there anymore.” That encounter and others like it have made Derden confident that the arts have made a difference in the lives of students at Northport.
She hopes they’ll make a difference in the lives of Bethel students, too, when she joins the Graduate School faculty this spring. In addition to finishing her Ed.D. and adjusting to her new role as principal coach for the Robbinsdale School District, Derden will teach a course called “Understanding Diversity and Student Needs” in Bethel’s M.A. in Teaching program. “Everything I used as a principal, I will use at Bethel,” Derden says. “I’ll bring in speakers from diverse backgrounds, I’ll use active learning strategies, and I’ll draw from the arts and my own experience.”
While Derden is a Chicago native, she spent five years as a social worker in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the ensuing cultural stretch helped shape her understanding of diversity. People there often referred to her as “colorful,” but Derden wasn’t offended. Instead, she embraced the teaching opportunity and explained that what might be normal to them could raise eyebrows elsewhere. “I believe that what comes from the heart goes through the heart,” Derden says. “We have to be transparent, open, and meet people where they’re at.”
Craig Paulson, Derden’s dissertation adviser and the director of the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program, says Derden’s clarity, flexibility, and graciousness make her a strong leader both in and out of the classroom. “Leona's genuine enthusiasm and passion are clear whenever anyone spends time with her,” Paulson says. “She has high standards for herself and others that she clearly sets and graciously supports. Her faith in Jesus Christ guides why, how, and what she does throughout each day.”
Indeed, Bethel’s faith-based approach to education is one of the things that initially attracted Derden to the Ed.D. program, and she looks forward to weaving it into her own teaching of diversity. “We are all from the same cloth, and it’s God,” Derden says. “When we bleed, it’s the same color. He shared his blood for all of us. That’s why I’m so excited about teaching at Bethel—I get to intertwine my faith with what I do.”