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Retiring Holland High principal Deb Feenstra looks backward (and forward!) at her career in education

Fact: Deb Feenstra’s 30-year career with Holland Public Schools never crossed through East K-7 School.

That can’t be said about any other school building in our district.

Feenstra, who is completing her third year as principal of Holland High School, will retire on June 30, nearly 40 years after being awarded a Holland High diploma herself in 1976.

Feenstra, now 57, was a third-grader when her family moved from New Orleans, LA to the Tulip City of Holland, MI. She attended Van Raalte Elementary when it was still a three-story building. She later worked at Van Raalte as an elementary teacher and the director of our alternative high school program, VR Tech, recently renamed Holland ViRtual Tech.

“I’ll miss the feeling of close connectedness I enjoyed with this community from being here all these years,” Feenstra said. “It’s a unique place where relationships matter most. I love it, especially it’s rich diversity.”

Feenstra taught at Harrington, Holland Heights, Lincoln and Van Raalte elementary schools. She served as a school administrator at our Early Childhood Center (when it was located at Apple Avenue), Maplewood, Van Raalte, VR Tech, and Holland New Tech, recently renamed Holland Early College.

She also did a three-year stint in the district’s central administrative office, overseeing special programs for migrant students, homeless students, adult education, adult English as a second language classes.

For readers trying to keep up with all of these twists and turns, Feenstra’s time at Holland West was short-lived. She was named principal of that school for the 2008-2009 school year and set up her office over the summer of 2008. But before that school year could begin, she was tapped for the central office position, where her fluency in Spanish and background of working with immigrants was needed more.

“That’s always been my role with the district,” Feenstra said, referencing her flexibility to slide into leadership roles that address the district’s most pressing needs.

In fact, that’s how Feenstra became principal of Holland High School.

Just before the 2013-2014 school year began, then-Holland High principal Justin Jennings resigned to take a new job, leaving Holland in the lurch. Superintendent Dr. Brian Davis asked Feenstra to accept the high-profile appointment for at least three years.

"Feenstra’s track record of strong leadership at any grade level – even at short notice – was apparent," Davis said.

"The district’s need for a high school principal was obvious," Feenstra said.

She was, characteristically, happy to serve.

Being a high school principal came at a personal cost, however.  Workdays routinely exceeded 10 hours. Summer vacations were shorter.

It’s the latter that represents the greater sacrifice for Feenstra.

For years, Feenstra and her husband, builder Jeff Feenstra, have spent their summers living in San Cristobal de Las Casa, in Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, where there are many Mayan descendants.

The Feenstras were Reformed Church of America missionaries at San Cristobal from 1999 to 2005. They were caretakers of a Mission House that had long served as a hub for travelers, educational and spiritual events, and medical services associated with missions in the area.

But the mission at San Cristobal was winding down, having accomplished its goal of establishing a thriving, self-supporting network of indigenous converts.

So, the Feenstras bought the Mission House. They live there with their extended family during the summer months, continuing Jeff’s long-running pure water ministry and other outreach projects.

Sadly, Feenstra said as a high school principal, she could only free up two or three weeks during the summers to be in San Cristobal.

There are reasons even nearer and dearer to Deb Feenstra’s heart that prompted her decision to retire – daughter Leslie and Jeff.

Leslie has special needs. At 28, she is beginning to “age-out” of programs for people with disabilities. Jeff has chosen self-employment so he can work around Leslie’s schedule since she can’t be home alone.

“I want him to finally have more flexibility to do the things he wants,” Deb said. “It’s my turn to work Leslie’s schedule.”

This is not to suggest that Feenstra is embracing a full-fledged retirement.

Deb will be teaching first-grade next year in Zeeland Christian School’s Spanish Immersion program. The Feenstras’ older daughter, Ashley Hernandez, also teaches in that program, and her children are enrolled in it.

Feenstra envisions her new schedule this way: Leslie is eligible to attend the Bella Vita program in Zeeland for seven more years. That program ends at 3:30 p.m., but Deb said Leslie could join her at school while she preps for the following day’s lessons.

Best of all, Feenstra said "working an elementary teacher’s schedule will allow me and my family to enjoy eight weeks each summer in Mexico."

“This will be a good transition for me,” Feenstra said. “I’ve always been able to live my faith. Now I’ll be able to speak it, too.”

Jeff is building a new home in Holland Township not far from Zeeland Christian School for his family – which includes Ashley & Domingo Hernandez and their three children.

This continues a pattern he established in Holland: Building homes with roomy common spaces that are suitable for extended families near schools where Deb worked.

And Holland now has several of these homes because Principal Feenstra has worked in so many of our school buildings.

Thank you, Principal Feenstra, for your heartfelt and student-centered leadership!

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