To hear Katie Pennington tell it, her ears pricked up and her eyes danced when, at a meeting of West Michigan principals in January, Holland High School Principal Deb Feenstra announced her intention to retire from public education.
“I’ve gotten to know Deb over the past few years and I’ve always wanted what she had,” Pennington said. “She always spoke so highly of her staff. It was obvious that she was both challenged and supported. She had the only [public] high school in a great community with a rich heritage.
“So, when Deb told the group, ‘If you know a principal who might be interested in working at Holland High…’ I didn’t have to think too hard,” Pennington added, with a chuckle. “ I thought, ‘Yes, I believe I do know someone!’ Basically, I couldn’t apply fast enough.”
Pennington, 40, replaced Feenstra on July 1 as Holland High’s principal after what Pennington described as a “really nice overlapping job shadow experience.”
Beginning in April, Pennington began spending two days a week in Holland with Feenstra, and working the remaining three work days at Kenowa Hills High School, where she served as principal for five years.
Previous to that, she had been principal at Wyoming Rogers High School for three years and an assistant principal at Kalamazoo Loy Norrix High School for two years.
Those positions required longish commutes from Pennington’s home in Zeeland, where her husband, Derek, is a social studies teacher and head football coach at Zeeland East High School.
“Working closer to my home is a bonus,” said Pennington, who has a 10-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter. “But I would have applied for Deb’s position no matter where it was based on how content and happy with her work I knew her to be.”
Pennington said she resolved to become a high school teacher as a teen-ager because her own teachers at Holt High School were so amazing.
She was barely 21 when she graduated from the University of Michigan with a history major, French minor, and a teaching certificate. For the next nine years she taught high school in Kalamazoo and completed an advanced degree in education leadership at Western Michigan University.
Pennington said she sees several things at Holland High to be excited about. To name a few, there’s the exemplary fine and performing arts programs, the Early College option, and the all-out cross-disciplinary approach to improving reading and writing, which dovetails with West Michigan’s Reading Now Network.
“I think we can accomplish a lot by keeping it simple and not allowing ourselves to get distracted by every new thing that come along,” Pennington said. “If we choose a few goals, provide training about how to achieve them, and give them time to work, we will accomplish a lot.”
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.”
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.
"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!