Cheryl Holland Fenner Retires as Principal of Southeast Raleigh Elementary School
The landscape of elementary education in Southeast Raleigh will look different when school re-starts for the 2023-24 school year. After 30 years in education, including nearly a decade as an elementary school principal in Southeast Raleigh, Cheryl Holland Fenner has retired.
Fenner is a graduate of N.C. Central University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in biology, with plans to be a nurse. Finding a new interest in education, she later joined the school’s first cohort to receive a Master’s in School Administration. Fenner’s retirement comes after experience in education as a middle school science teacher and an assessment specialist with the N.C. School for the Deaf and the Governor Morehead School for the Blind; a curriculum intervention specialist for the state Office of Education Services; an International Baccalaureate Coordinator in Durham; and an assistant principal at Wake County’s Hilburn Academy. In 2015, the year she became principal of Southeast Raleigh’s Fuller GT-AIG Magnet Elementary School, Fenner was named Magnet School Principal of the Year for the region that covers the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
In 2019, she was picked to lead Southeast Raleigh Elementary, Wake County Public School System’s first school to participate as an anchor partner in a Purpose Built Communities model. In addition to her experience, her love for students and learning and her connections to the community made her the right candidate for the job.
Located at the Beacon Site on Rock Quarry Road, Southeast Raleigh Elementary is a Title 1 school and serves as the base school for families living in the six-census tract Promise Zone. Serving over 400 students each year, the school offers four pre-K classrooms, a community garden, teaching kitchen and shares a gymnatorium and outdoor field space and playground with the SE Raleigh YMCA.
Fenner leaves behind a legacy of leadership that championed guaranteed opportunities for all students, specifically disadvantaged students of color, to meet their educational goals, have more access to higher-level academic classes, explore unique opportunities they might otherwise miss, and find community in school.
Fenner’s connection to Southeast Raleigh didn’t begin with her career. It’s home. “I feel really honored to be the first principal at this school that served my community for the purpose of bringing the community together to revitalize the entire area,” she said. “To have grown up in Southgate, I’m honored by that.”
Her parents, the late Dr. Charles V. Holland and Pearl J. Holland, made Raleigh home in August 1968 when Fenner was three years old. Born in Ohio, Fenner is the middle child of three, including older brother Michael and the family’s youngest, Derek. The Hollands chose Southeast Raleigh’s Southgate community off Rock Quarry Road to raise their family. Charles Holland was an optometrist who built his career in private practice. He graduated from N.C. Central University and went on to optometry school at Ohio State University, where he was the first or second black student ever in the school’s program. Before Charles Holland died in 2001, his son Michael Holland joined him in practice and continues to serve two locations of Holland & Holland Eye Care Center, including New Bern Avenue in downtown Raleigh and Duke Street in Durham. Pearl Holland, a native of Fayetteville, earned a degree in commerce from NCCU. She taught special education at Hunter Elementary School and retired from Holland & Holland Eye Care Center, where she was the Office Manager.
In a touch of irony, when Fenner first walked into Fuller, a placard offered this reminder: Charles Holland served on the Wake County School Board from 1985-91. That era ushered in the height of magnet school expansion for WCPSS. “He was an integral part of something his daughter would become an integral part of 20 years before I even became a magnet school educator,” Fenner said.
Fenner’s decision to retire centers on spending time with her family. “The role of a principal, teacher, educator is hard and can be very time-consuming and stressful,” she said. “I was one who poured my life into my work because I enjoyed it so much. That’s just me, the way that I’m wired, but there comes a time when you know it’s time to move on,” she acknowledged.
“But I still love education and feel passionate about it.”
Soon after Fenner welcomed students and parents to SERES, COVID-19 surfaced, and schools suspended in-class instruction. “We were a brand new school, and the pandemic really impacted us,” Fenner said. “But we did really well, considering everything.”
According to state measures, SERES met its growth goals, which assesses individual students, but did not reach its goal in proficiency, determined by whether students are on grade level, evidenced by the End of Grade tests, Fenner said. Those accountability measures are the challenge Fenner found most frustrating in working to uplift and sustain Southeast Raleigh schools while maintaining high expectations for student performance and focusing on intentional action steps to meet accountability measures. “I’m all for accountability; it’s important,” Fenner said. “But there needs to be more of an equitable system for accountability.”
At the state level, “Proficiency carries a much greater weight than growth, but you have to consider the inequities in society that leave some schools, even in the same district, with more resources and opportunities.” It takes time, she said, to get already struggling, disenfranchised students from 21 to 80 percent proficiency in a year’s time, Fenner acknowledged. “We must consider all variables and rethink how scores are weighted,” she said.
Fenner also watched successes unfold. “I love the direction of the partners, working together to provide opportunities for our students,” she said. Together, she noted, Southeast Raleigh Promise, the Southeast Raleigh YMCA, and SERES joined forces to provide opportunities for students, from after-school enrichment through Club ROAR and swimming lessons for all students to podcasting and the gifts of 3D printers and oculi from their school’s partnership with Biogen and the Players Coalition to expose students to the virtual world.
“Wake County also has been supportive of this Community Responsive School in this Purpose Built Community, our school,” Fenner said. For example, she said, SERES was allocated extra resources, including a full-time instructional coach, a social worker, and a theme coordinator.
Community groups have taken bold steps, too, as partners, Fenner said, noting contributions from The Links, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, and other community partners. “Those are successes because they are feeding into our children academically and pouring into our school in several other different ways.”
In true Fenner fashion, the newly retired educator pointed to the bottom line: “Success is that students and families seem to enjoy the school and want to come to the school, and success is that we have a dedicated staff,” she said. “Success is there is a community within the school. Success is, now, we’ve built a culture.”