Larenda Denien could’ve been a rapper or a comedian.
Growing up in Clarksburg, West Virgina, she wasn’t sure what she really wanted to do after high school. But the two career choices fit her personality.
“I remember telling my mom when I was in high school that I wanted to get into rap music,” Denien, 42, said. “She said, that’s great, but let’s get our education first.”
That advice put Denien on a pathway first into the classroom and then to become a leader in the school building. But not just any leader: Denien, Idlewild Elementary’s principal since 2014, was named CMS’ Principal of the Year on Monday.
“Her best ability is to have a vision,” said Tangela Williams, the superintendent of CMS’ Southeast Learning Community. “She has the knack to create that vision, get her staff engaged, and get that vision to come alive for the parents and students.”
She was one of six finalists.
“I have never been more shocked in my life,” Denien told the Observer after the announcement. “I’m still shaking, and it’s been over an hour. I never dreamed that this could happen. There are so many other amazing principals … This is just awesome.”
More than 900 students attend Idlewild Elementary, and more than 40 languages are spoken within its walls.
“For me, it’s always been about relationships and building relationships,” Denien said. “I love people. I love getting to know people. Being a principal is the best job. You get to be connected to everyone — the staff, the families, the community. I love to see (the students) thrive, grow and love school. I want school to be a place like Disney World.”
CMS principal always ‘just one call away’
Denien began her CMS career more than 18 years ago as a teacher, then a math facilitator and dean of students. She became an assistant principal in 2011.
“Denien attracts and retains incredible staff, as well as coaches and builds staff to her high expectations,” a release from the district’s communications team reads. “She mentors numerous new principals and is always one call away for anything needed.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree from Fairmont State University in West Virginia, and a master’s degree from Gardner-Webb University.
“I would play school with my sister. She was always the teacher, and I was the principal,” Denien said. “I wanted to be in charge. I wanted to be the one that could help her teach better. I’ve always felt like someone who could coach people along.”
Idlewild Elementary has received several recognitions during her tenure, including being named a National Magnet School of Excellence annually since 2012. The school won the Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Award for No. 1 Magnet School in America in 2017.
“Kids need us,” she said. “All they need is a caring, loving adult to make an impact on a child’s life. Be that one person for someone.”
Staying close amid pandemic
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, Denien said it’s been difficult. In CMS, hundreds of teachers have turned in their resignations, the district has had a teacher shortage since the beginning of the current school year and many employees have been forced to take on multiple roles in different classrooms.
“There’s no more rewarding job in the world, but there’s not a harder job in the world,” Denien said. “The responsibility that falls on educators — we shouldn’t see it as a burden but see it as a privilege, an honor.
“When you are able to see learning happening, there’s no better feeling than that. Take it all in, but know that things are always evolving and changing.”
Throughout the pandemic particularly when in-person learning wasn’t possible, Denien said she made it a point to stay connected to her staff, students and families. She shared strategies and resources, asked families to send in pictures, and created family reading sessions. She hosted weekly sessions with counselors and social workers, made home visits and had drive-through teacher appreciation events.
“Whether kids were here or not I wanted to make sure (they were) getting the best of us,” she said. “I wanted to make sure we were all taking care of each other. We were trying to maintain the relationship piece.”
And if the students at Idlewild Elementary are really lucky, Denien will rap.
“Yeah, I have a couple of times,” she said. “It’s not pretty. My mom was right. I definitely did not have a future (in rap.)”