EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — After a long day of running from school to school and answering phone calls, emails and questions, Leanna Mullen finds herself at her desk.
Her office inside of the township High School control room leaves her surrounded by all kinds of high-tech equipment, but Mullen keeps her desk personalized with photos of her husband and dogs, and of course, her Stockton flag. It is 3 o’clock in the afternoon, yet her face still lights up when visitors walk through the door. Though she may be exhausted, Mullen is ready to take on another project with her students, helping them prepare for the next morning’s broadcast.
“Did you see our new set? It’s almost finished,” Mullen says as she points to the window of the Eagle News studio. As the manager of district communications, she works to make improvements like these happen for media classes throughout the township schools.
Born and raised in Atlantic County, Mullen picked up a video camera long before she stepped inside a production room. She was 8 years old the first time she held one in her hands and can still recall being amazed that she could capture anything in the world and keep it on tape forever.
“It was like a memory that you could always see with that same pair of eyes, even years later,” Mullen says.
While Mullen has professional experience in various areas of the media arts, her career in education allows her to pursue both of her passions. In addition to working in production every day, she gets to help others by sharing her knowledge with students and fellow teachers.
At Oakcrest High School, about 15 years ago, Mullen first realized her own talents in filming and editing. After winning student awards such as Director of the Year and Mid-Atlantic Young Producer of the Year, she decided she wanted to continue creating content not just as a hobby, but as her future career.
But it was also around this time that Mullen received devastating news.
In 2004, she was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening genetic disorder called Gaucher’s Disease.
Being diagnosed with Gaucher’s meant that Mullen would not be able to carry on her high school education like every other student. Instead, she needed to make changes to her school schedule to keep up with her weekly hospital visits and treatments.
Unfortunately, one of these schedule changes required her to give up the one and only class she did not want to lose — her media class.
This is when Mullen’s teacher, Chip Lockwood, decided to step in.
“I was very fortunate that my teacher, Chip Lockwood, who is now an adjunct at Stockton, gave up his lunch for the rest of the year so I could take media as an independent study,” Mullen says.
Working one-on-one with her teacher gave Mullen opportunities her peers did not have in a regular class setting. She was able to learn skills such as advanced linear and nonlinear editing techniques, which are methods she teaches her students today.
“You could say my negative turned into a positive. ... I don’t think I would be this far along in my career if it weren’t for teachers like Mr. Lockwood and Mr. Thomas,” Mullen says.
Using her creative outlet as a distraction from her illness, she persisted through the rest of her high school years. When applying for colleges, Mullen was accepted to prestigious universities.
But something called her toward a different path. As a student eligible for the NJ STARS program, she realized that by attending community college, she could work and intern locally, while also starting up a company of her own.
In 2007, Mullen dived into the communications field without looking back. She launched her company, “Film Reel Productions,” which provided her with the opportunities to produce content for major clients such as Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and GreenTV.
But after graduating from Cumberland County Community College, she felt she wanted more.
“I wanted to become a media teacher, but I knew with my mixed background I would run into a challenge,” Mullen says. “I could offer some great real-world field experience to students, but I would have a difficult time even breaking into a high school environment with just my associate’s degree.”
After taking time off due to health issues, with the help of Stockton’s REAL Program, Mullen enrolled at Stockton as a liberal arts major, trying her hand in various fields to see how her personal interests could work across curriculums.
In the meantime, she was hired to work as a kindergarten paraprofessional for her hometown school district and later as a data coordinator for Egg Harbor Township High School, which introduced her to the field of education. In 2015, she graduated from Stockton with her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a minor in digital literacy.
“I enjoyed Stockton so much that I continued straight into the master’s of instructional technology program,” Mullen says. “I’m proud to say that Stockton has helped me find a balance in communications, education, and technology in a way no other institution could.”
This balance was just what Mullen needed to enter the next stage of her career. Shortly after earning her bachelor’s degree, the Egg Harbor Township School District promoted her from data coordinator to station manager of the township’s TV channel. She would also begin teaching advanced media classes at EHT.
“In her first year teaching advanced editing and running EHT-TV, she made so many improvements to the media program,” says one of her former students, Johnny Loreaux. “Mullen helped get the COMM-Academy up and running.”
Loreaux remembers the hard work that Mullen and her coworkers put into developing the Communications Academy in 2015 through 2016. The COMM-Academy allows students to focus on communications as their desired field throughout high school, preparing them for secondary education. Students take a dual-credit course their senior year, aligning their curriculum to Stockton’s media program.
In September 2016, the first wave of academy students entered the High School. Since then, Mullen has provided ‘COMM-kids’ with real industry experiences, such as attending programs at KYW Newsradio in Philadelphia and internships with EHT-TV.
“If you’re able to meet students where they are and give them opportunities to succeed, you’ll be amazed at how far they can go,” Mullen says.
In 2017, Mullen graduated from Stockton University with her master’s degree. Soon after, she received the opportunity to become manager of district communications — a position she had dreamed of since she was a high school student herself.
Recently, in her new role, Mullen assisted Communications Academy students in creating films for the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation’s "Sonic Highways Hometown Documentaries" project, meant to inspire students to research their town’s musical history.
One of Mullen’s students, Nardeen Saleep, produced the documentary “The Billy Walton Band,” about a popular local group that tours internationally. Saleep says it was Mullen who encouraged her throughout the filming process by attending concerts with her and giving her tips on camera shots.
“Mrs. Mullen has helped me tremendously with my Sonic Highways documentary,” Saleep says.
“She helped me talk to the band members, and they allowed me to get on stage with them and film. It was really a great experience.”
Last month, Mullen hosted a documentary film screening night at EHT High School for Saleep and other students to showcase their work.
“It’s very rewarding to see what their projects look like at the start of the program and where they are at the end,” Mullen says, reflecting on her students’ progress.
Besides working for Egg Harbor Township schools, Mullen is an adjunct professor at Cumberland County Community College, serves on the Board of Directors at Cygnus Creative Arts Centre and works for EDCampNJ to organize local professional development opportunities for teachers. She has also been a rare-disease advocate for several years.
Mullen has even found the time to become involved with local politics. She lobbied in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill for Rare Disease Day. Since then, she has run for office in Mullica Township.
She has also enrolled at Wilmington University as a doctoral candidate in organizational leadership and innovation.
“Right now, I’ve pretty much booked up every waking minute through spring 2021, when I’m expected to complete my doctorate,” Mullen says.
But above all, what remains most important to Mullen is her students, and that she teaches them skills in not only media and technology, but in life.
“I want them to feel prepared for whatever life may throw at them next. ... I want them to feel in control when something technical goes wrong,” Mullen says. “I want them to show up and do the right thing, even if their boss would never know.
“I don’t expect everyone to become the next Katie Couric or Steven Spielberg, but I want them to be successful at whatever they decide to pursue.”