College of Education and Human Development

Connect Magazine

A system-level change maker

Alum Courtney Bell-Duncan

Courtney Bell-Duncan promotes educational equity through her consulting work.

When it comes to making education more equitable and culturally relevant, Courtney Bell-Duncan is not interested in low-level changes. “I’m definitely a system-level change maker,” she says.

And Bell-Duncan (’14 MEd, ’20 PhD– education policy and leadership) says creating change that is sustainable requires changes in policy. If not, you will not change the system and you will not change the output. It’s that simple.

“And we’re not just talking about big P policies like school board policies. We’re talking about little P: people, practices, procedures, protocols. These things lead the behaviors of educators and leaders that ultimately impact their students for better or for worse,” she says.

Her knack for identifying the structural components necessary to enact meaningful, lasting change has made her and her company, Courtney S. Bell Consulting LLC, a must-call for school leaders seeking equity in education.

Bell-Duncan helps school directors and superintendents align their curricular instructional leadership and policy goals with cultural and moral responsiveness. The ultimate goal is to execute a plan to bring forth equity in the four little-P areas.

“I believe in the innate ability of educational leaders to do what is right by the students they serve,” she says. “I consider this to be a fact. It’s a belief that drives me. If I didn’t believe it was possible to create change in educational leadership, I wouldn’t do this.”

Bell-Duncan tells leaders that if they are on the right side of justice, everything will take care of itself. “They have to be comfortable to make the impact,” she says. “What’s right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right. Doing what is right is going to stand the test of time. Everything else will fall by the wayside.” 

Courtney Bell-Duncan celebrates with CEHD classmates at her PhD commencement.
Courtney Bell-Duncan celebrates with CEHD classmates at her PhD commencement. Photo credit: Nicole Neri

Bell-Duncan grew up in North Minneapolis and says leadership was always her forte. She was a member of a leadership group, CityWide Student Government, and got to know her peers in all seven public high schools in Minneapolis. When she was co-president of the group in her senior year, she had the opportunity to travel to state-level conferences with schools such as Orono and Wayzata. It was eye opening. “I immediately recognized the difference between the facilities, the curricular offerings, and the living experiences of my peers,” she says.

Seeing these disparities for students going to school in the same state, but within different zip codes, lit a fire in her. “I was passionate as a young person about education because I always felt it was the great equalizer,” she says. “Providing quality education heavily depended on the pedagogy of the teacher, so I decided to become that teacher.”

Courtney-Bell received a BA in sociology of law, criminology, and deviance from the U of M and was working as an associate educator at North High School in Minneapolis when she decided to enroll in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at CEHD. Graduating with her MEd, she returned to North High as an African American history/human geography teacher. She was a CEHD Rising Alumni award recipient in 2015, and in 2018, she was a finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. 

Courtney Bell-Duncan, back row, center, accepting an award at the 2015 CEHD Rising Alumni event
Courtney Bell-Duncan, back row, center, accepting an award at the 2015 CEHD Rising Alumni event. Photo credit: Nicole Neri

At this time, she was two years into her PhD program in education policy and leadership. Since her first year of teaching, she had been coaching and training leaders and knew that it was something she was gifted at and was called to do. So, she stepped out of the classroom into larger educational leadership roles. She worked as an academic advisor in the College of Liberal Arts, was a program manager of culturally responsive instruction for St. Paul Public Schools, established a consulting firm, served as an assistant principal of a middle and high school in Brooklyn Center, was an assistant professor of educational leadership at Minnesota State University–Mankato, and is now consulting full time.

She got the chance to hone her ability in building leadership skills in others when she was hired as a program manager in the St. Paul Public Schools. “I had the honor of training instructional leaders from teacher coaches to principals to district-level leaders,” she says. “That role was instrumental for me to develop as a leader of leaders. I did this when I was writing my dissertation. A couple weeks before I finished, I resigned my position from St. Paul and did consulting full time.”

Bell-Duncan is motivated by taking a big-picture view. “What has allowed me to move forward is the fact that I know I am servicing the greater good,” she says. “My God-given purpose on Earth is fighting for system-level change for our young scholars. That inspires me.”

She also likes to give credit to CEHD. “As a first-generation college student—the first in my family to have a doctoral degree—I am extremely grateful to the faculty and staff of CEHD,” she says. “I am grateful for the training and the education that I received, and I am grateful for the opportunities that have been extended to me as a result of my education. And a special thank you to [Professor] Nicola Alexander. She’s a great mentor to me. It has been my great honor to know her, learn from her, and be able to impact social change.”

Learn more, visit Courtney Bell-Duncan Consulting.