Cheryl Holland Fenner planned to be a nurse.
But as a student in the late 1980s isolating DNA in a lab at N.C. Central University in Durham, Fenner realized something about herself: “I’m way too much a people person.”
Later, an oncology rotation in nursing school at Wake Tech “was emotionally too much for me,” she said.
Fenner turned to her volunteer roles as a Sunday School teacher and as a tutor to find her professional fate: education.
Now, Fenner is finishing her third year as principal at Fuller Elementary School in Southeast Raleigh as the 2015 Magnet School Principal of the Year for the region that covers the Carolinas, Kentucky and Tennessee.
It’s a distinction awarded annually by Magnet Schools of America to school leaders who set high expectations in their schools and communities through programs that promote equity, diversity and academic excellence. Winners were recognized in Raleigh last month during the group’s national conference.
“I really didn’t think I had a chance,” said Fenner, who is wrapping up her 21st year as an educator. “But I’m truly honored by it. When one of us is celebrated, all of us are celebrated.”
Fenner’s philosophy is in the Es – for equity, exposure and elevated expectations, she said.
“I’m all about equity for my kids,” she said. “I believe all of them have a gift, and it’s my responsibility to make sure they are exposed to a wide variety of electives and opportunities, and that we have high expectations for all kids – and we challenge them, every child.
“We’re expected to grow them.”
Fenner expects as much of herself as she does of her students, faculty, staff, parents and community.
“We are Fuller,” she said. “We’re going for higher – exceptional growth. I’ve got to close the gap.”
After nursing school, Fenner returned to her alma mater, NCCU, in 1994 for a lateral-entry teaching license. She’s since taught middle school science and math in Vance and Durham counties.
She also worked for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Education Services on the state’s first assistance team for the Governor Morehead School for the N.C. School for the Deaf. The team assessed the school’s programs in preparation to meet No Child Left Behind mandates.
In addition, Fenner was a state curriculum intervention specialist, an International Baccalaureate coordinator in Durham and an assistant principal at Hilburn Academy in Raleigh.
Fuller is her first principalship. And it’s a point of pride for Fenner, her family and the Southeast Raleigh community, where Fenner’s parents settled in 1968 when she was 3.
Fenner’s father, the late Dr. Charles V. Holland, a Raleigh optometrist, served as vice chairman of the Wake County school board from 1985-91, during which time Fuller became a magnet school. He also served on the board of NCCU, which also is Fenner’s parents’ alma mater.
Other signs of fate: One of Fenner’s brothers attended Fuller, and a close family friend, Alfred Perry, was the school’s first principal. Fenner’s mother, Pearl Holland, once worked at Hunter Elementary, now Fuller’s magnet sister school.
“I feel like I have a calling, a mission to fulfill,” Fenner said. “I want to make a difference, and keep my father’s educational legacy alive.”
That pleases her mother.
“Her dad would have been very proud,” Holland said. “His interest in education was really, really high, as was his interest in Southeast Raleigh.
“It means a lot for her to have her first principalship in the area in which she grew up. She has lots of energy, and she’s a motivator.”
“She knows the neighborhood, and she is acutely aware of the demographics, inside and out of the school walls,” said Paula Jones, whose daughter, Nina, a fifth-grader, carries the torch of Fuller family legacy passed on by older sister, Jaelyn, now in seventh grade. “She is an awesome ambassador for Fuller.”