St. Agnes teacher is Derby royalty

Emma Rhodes, far right, waved to her students during the Pegasus Parade April 28. Rhodes is a third-grade teacher at St. Agnes School and a 2024 Derby princess. (Photo Special to The Record by Jessica Able)

Special to The Record

For Emma Rhodes, the chance to be a part of the Kentucky Derby Festival royal court program felt like a dream come true.

The third-grade teacher at St. Agnes School is a 2024 Derby princess — just as her mom was in 1990 and her older sister in 2022.

“I grew up hearing my mom talking about the program and how important it was to her. I understood how much of an impact it had on her and how special it was. I knew I wanted to be involved as well,” Rhodes, 25, said in an interview Monday.

The Kentucky Derby Festival royal court program serves as an opportunity for young women to act as ambassadors for the Derby Festival, the city of Louisvlle and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. 

Each year, five women are chosen to be a symbol to the community of the spirit of the Derby Festival at its 70 events leading up to the big race. The 150th running of the Kentucky Derby is set for May 4.

“The Kentucky Derby Festival exists for all members of the community to celebrate this incredible time in the city. No matter where you live, what color your skin, where you are from or religion, the one thing we have in common is our city, our community,” Rhodes said.

“Every event I go to, our job is to make connections with people. We speak to them and learn about them; how long they have been going to the festival; and to be a role model for the kids,” she said.

Some of her favorite events have been the ones her students have attended, Rhodes said.

“I really loved the Children’s Tea. Having my students there was so special,” she said.

The Pegasus Parade was also a highlight, she said. 

“Seeing all different people from all over Louisville was very special. Their excitement was really palpable,” she said.

Balancing her job with her princess duties has been possible because of the support from the St. Agnes administration and fellow teachers, she said.

Emma Rhodes, a 2024 Derby princess and teacher at St. Agnes School, listened as her third-grade students shared what they did over the weekend. (Photo Special to The Record by Jessica Able)

“St. Agnes has been so supportive and encouraging throughout the whole process. Luckily a lot of events take place in the evening. And, I have good time management skills,” she added. “I’m so grateful to be able to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Jessica Young, principal of St. Agnes School, described Rhodes as “bright, upbeat and positive.”

“You can feel a sense of pride from third-grade students when they share that their teacher is a Derby princess! Seeing photos of Ms. Rhodes with her students during Derby events has brought me so much joy. 

“Both students and Ms. Rhodes are excited to see each other. You can see their connection is strong,” Young said.

Young said Rhodes’s involvement with the Kentucky Derby Festival “has brought much joy to our whole school.”

“It has been enjoyable to see the teachers gather outside Ms. Rhodes’ door to ask what event she attended and who she met,” she said.

Rhodes called her students her “tiny hype people” and said they are always interested in where she has to go.

Jessica Covington, whose son Drew is in Rhodes’s third-grade class, calls Rhodes a role model and said her son thinks it’s “really neat that his teacher is famous.”

“He is more interested in the festival (this year). In fact, we are going to watch the bed race and we went to the balloon glow — two things we have never gone to until this year,” Covington said.“

In addition to their duties at the Derby Festival events, Derby princesses receive a $2,000 scholarship from the Fillies, Inc., to assist with education expenses. Candidates must maintain a 3.0 grade point average and are selected by out-of-state judges.

Rhodes will graduate next week from Bellarmine University with a master’s degree in elementary education. She earned her undergraduate degree in liberal arts at Bellarmine in 2021. She began teaching full-time at St. Agnes last fall. She is also a graduate of St. Francis of Assisi School and a member of Assumption High School’s class of 2017.

Jessica Able
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Jessica Able
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