SETTLING IN – New La Conner Elementary School Principal Heather Fakkema, who hails from a pioneer Whidbey Island family, met with staff last week and was ready to greet students on the first day of school this morning. Fakkema was an elementary student herself when she first felt called to teach. It was after co-owning a business that she opted for a career in public school administration. – Photo courtesy of Bill Reynolds
It was while selling doors for a living that Heather Fakkema realized doors were also opening for her to pursue a career in school administration.
She had by then already spent two years as a teacher before stepping away from the classroom to start a family and engage in several other ventures, including a children’s ministry. The light bulb flicked on during her time with a family-owned window and door distribution firm in Seattle. Business management introduced Fakkema to concepts her teaching experience had convinced the Whidbey Island native would be successful in a school setting. “It gave me the idea to go into (school) administration,” says Fakkema, the new principal at La Conner Elementary. “It was an opportunity to develop leadership skills, and I had always yearned to work with kids.” So, for her, the daunting job of a public school principal offered the best of both worlds. Fakkema, then, is banking on her blended teaching and business backgrounds making a world of difference as she greets students on the first day of school this morning. She has a tough act to follow, succeeding Bev Bowen, who during her tenure as La Conner Elementary principal built a strong rapport with staff and students alike. Bowen resigned last spring, one of two high-profile departures – longtime Food Services Director Georgia Johnson was the other – from La Conner Schools. Bowen, coincidentally, has hired on at the Oak Harbor School District, where four generations of Fakkemas are graduates. Fakkema’s great-grandparents emigrated from the Netherlands to Whidbey Island in the late 1800s. The Fakkema Road sign off Highway 20 is a familiar sight to motorists approaching Oak Harbor from the north. Fakkema was an Oak Harbor student when she first felt the call to teach. “I knew I wanted to be a teacher when I was in third grade,” she recalls. Fakkema followed her dream to Seattle Pacific University, where she earned a degree in education. She taught a couple years before shifting roles as a stay-at-home mom and later joining the private sector. When, after 15 years, she returned to public education, Fakkema found she could still think in terms of systems and procedures, much as had been the case when she was in business. So she went back to SPU for her administrative credential. Given her love of small schools and La Conner’s proximity to friends and family throughout western Washington, Fakkema jumped at the opportunity to apply here when the elementary campus position opened. It’s been an ideal fit so far, says Fakkema, who is making her home on nearby Valentine Road. “I started coming in to the office in mid-July,” she says. “I really love the work and it’s been a great time these past few weeks.” Over the summer, Fakkema did her homework on La Conner. She gives the community high marks across the board. “One of the things I’ve liked,” Fakkema says, “which has come from our leadership group – and is something we’ve been talking about a lot – is the idea of pulling together, like paddling a canoe in one direction. It’s a theme we’ll refer to during the year.” Her goal is to foster student-centered learning at La Conner Elementary. “For me,” says Fakkema, “what it boils down to is we want to grow great kids. Public schools, in particular, have the opportunity to inspire and teach students to reach their potential. School is a place where a positive environment allows kids to dream about their futures. It’s a place where what they want for themselves becomes possible.” Fakkema feels fortunate to be at La Conner Elementary during the centennial year of the school district’s integrated relationship with Swinomish Tribal Community. That partnership will be celebrated with re-installation of the refurbished La Conner Elementary totem pole on Sept. 11. “I’m looking forward to it,” Fakkema says. “It’s something that’s really meaningful.” Swinomish leaders and elders addressed La Conner staff during an in-service session last week, at which time the concept of “pulling together” modeled each summer by inter-tribal canoe journeys was again highlighted. Prior to the start of school Fakkema also met with many of the La Conner Elementary staff, exchanges that have further heartened her outlook for the year ahead. “I’m really excited,” she says, “about the possibilities before us.”