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Meet Ondrena Clyburn

headshot of Ondrena Clyburn

Role: Teacher

School: KIPP BOLD Academy

Teacher Ondrena Clyburn’s journey to KIPP New Jersey involved advice from Beyonce—and a desire to help students run to school and discover their passion for the arts. We spoke with Ondrena to learn more about her teaching career at KIPP New Jersey. Here’s what we learned.

What motivated you to pursue a career in percussion education?

I’ve been drumming for more than 16 years. My father Ricky Clyburn was a professional singer and he passed when I was 12. Since the seventh grade when I started in marching band, I’ve wanted to continue his legacy. I was lucky that the teacher, Ms. Robinson, recognized I had talent and helped me move through the ranks to join the high school band ahead of my grade.

I’ve always had a desire to perform—and a desire to give back to the next generation of student drummers the same way my teachers inspired me. After high school, I was fortunate enough to perform for a number of artists—including Beyonce, Jay Z, and Bilal Oliver. During an audition for Beyonce in 2006, she gave me some advice that I decided to take—she encouraged me to go back to school!

I attended Delaware State University (an HBCU) and studied music performance. After college, I continued to play professionally, taught drumming in various district and charter schools, and started a nonprofit that offered young people in Essex County, NJ opportunities to receive mentoring and music instruction. During that time, I learned that students brought so much passion and energy to music—and I wanted to cultivate that passion.

Why did you choose KIPP New J Why did you choose KIPP New Jersey? ersey?

One word: Opportunity! KIPP BOLD Academy principal Ms. Bonnifield gave me an incredible opportunity to teach percussion at her middle school and really develop my program. It’s rare that schools make an investment in the arts, particularly drumming. She believed in me from the beginning and still helps me develop as an educator. I am in the process of writing my own curriculum (since my subject is so niche!), which is an amazing opportunity and allows the freedom to innovate. I have so much support as a teacher in residence, not just from my principal, but from fellow teachers. Being able to establish and understand what a growth mindset looks like during our Professional Development sessions is super helpful. Our leaders always offer feedback that helps strengthen our teaching methods.

Teaching at BOLD has given me an opportunity to really bring forth my best work. This has been one of the greatest gifts I could ask for, both personally and professionally. It feels like fate that I get to teach seventh graders every day—because that’s exactly how old I was when I started playing!

Take us inside your percussion classroom. What does student engagement look like?

It’s a sight to behold! People forget that percussion isn’t just about drumming, it’s also about movement. Right now, our students are preparing for an amazing opportunity to play in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown Newark. I’m teaching them the movements and music they’ll need to know—but I’m trying to help them understand that drumming isn’t just an art, it’s a sport. We’re doing mini-lessons on nutrition, so they know how to properly fuel their bodies for success.

At BOLD, one of our values is leadership—and that’s how I like my classroom to feel—centered around students taking charge of their learning. I don’t like spending much time in front of them, so I often allow them to lead our lessons. It’s amazing to see them grow each day and they bring so much energy to what we do, whether it’s a chant, or a call and response on the drums.

What advice would you give a teacher in their first year with KIPP New Jersey?

Be ready for work! Be ready to give 100% and nothing less of yourself. Be ready to make your mark on the world. If you have a passion for your subject, do it with a full heart. This is for our youth, our kids, our community—and they matter.

Interested in joining our team and family? Head here to review current opportunities: jobs.kippnj.org