Today Magazine Winter 2020 - Page 17

Leading by Example: How One Alumnus Transformed an Urban Detroit School District By Meghan Orsino F or Derrick Coleman, EdD '17, his life experiences have inspired him to pursue a career in education to provide all young people with equal opportunities and, ultimately, led him to Gwynedd Mercy University. Life wasn’t always easy for Derrick, and he empathizes with school kids who grow up in poverty. There are unique challenges that can result from poor economic status, and through his own personal experiences, Derrick connected with other young students struggling with similar issues. “Through all the things you have to overcome and endure, you develop a strength,” said Derrick. “You become very competitive because you feel it is the only way to continue and survive.” He wanted to make a difference in these kids’ lives, so he worked hard to become a teacher. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he spent years as a high school English teacher, and eventually worked his way up to principal and then to superintendent, where he could further improve his students. In fact, he has been the superintendent of the River Rouge School District, an urban school district adjacent to Detroit, since 2012. The district includes three K-8 schools and one high school. When Derrick first arrived at River Rouge, he had his work cut out for him. River Rouge was losing students at a “ We are all a sum of our life experiences. ” rapid pace. Many parents in River Rouge lost confidence in the schools, sending their children elsewhere. The school was on the verge of closing, with less than 1,000 students enrolled. Derrick gave them reasons to believe in their local schools. Over the course of three years, Derrick was able to raise enrollment by more than 600 students and eliminate a $3.4 million deficit. One of his many accomplishments included opening a new primary school focused on science, technology, engineering, and math, which offered families a choice of schools without leaving the district. Enrollment at River Rouge grew by 200% and the district had to institute a waitlist to attend. Thanks to his efforts, River Rouge is becoming a model for urban reform in Michigan. Always striving to better serve his school district, Derrick began looking to further his education. A friend introduced Derrick to Dr. Raymond Bandlow, who was just starting GMercyU’s Doctorate in Educational Leadership program. Ray was also a Detroit native, and after their long chat about personal values and beliefs, Derrick enthusiastically enrolled in the program’s first cohort in 2014. During his time in the Educational Leadership program, Derrick grew as a person, both professionally and personally. Not only that, but as the only superintendent enrolled in the program, Derrick was able to bring years of real-world experience to share with his cohort. He was more than willing to impart these valuable skills and lessons to everyone, and was able to bring a new dimension to the program. He graduated from GMercyU’s EdD program in August 2017, completing all of his course requirements within three years, a highly commendable accomplishment for a superintendent of schools. Because of his personal and professional accomplishments, Derrick was presented with the 2018 Outstanding Graduate Award. He flew all the way to GMercyU from Michigan to be recognized at Honors Convocation and to walk with his fellow cohort members, now friends, at Commencement. With new experiences, perspectives, and techniques from his time at GMercyU, Derrick is excited to put his new skills to work at River Rouge. He continues to embrace the spirit of Gwynedd Mercy University to this day, and is dedicated to changing the world for the better, one student at a time. “GMercyU was the perfect fit for me,” Derrick recalls. “While I could have attended most institutions in the country, the way in which I found this institution is what I call divine. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.” TODAY 15