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Wedding singer, home renovator, intentional leader

Meet Your Principal: Kristen Pennington

Kristen Pennington is the new Knapp Forest Elementary principal. SNN gets to know her in this edition of Meet Your Principal.

Other positions held in education: A 2002 East Kentwood High School graduate, Pennington started her teaching career at Chandler Woods Charter Academy. She moved on to Kalamazoo area schools, where she taught kindergarten, second and fourth grades, then served as an instructional coach. Her previous role as an elementary principal was at Lakeshore Public Schools in Stevensville. “I was so excited to come back to the area,” she said. “It really feels like home.”

How about jobs outside education? Pennington has worked as a lifeguard, food server, a roofer and house painter, among other jobs. For about the last 10 years, the daughter of a contractor has bought, renovated and sold houses. Oh, and she also plays guitar and, for one summer, was a wedding singer. 

Education/degrees: Pennington earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Western Michigan University, and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Cornerstone University. She said a specialty endorsement course called Leadership Matters — which she took through the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association — “really refined my skills as a leader. Once I completed that course, I felt really prepared to support a building full of people.” 

Her first task as a new principal: She called every one of the 400 or so families in her Kalamazoo building. “I’m a firm believer that relationships are everything. Now that I am at Knapp Forest I have the same desire to connect with every family personally. I feel like that’s an achievable goal.”

Spouse/partner/children: Daughter, Seeley, 3 ½, whom Penington calls “a bundle of energy and joy and light.”

Hobbies/Interests: Spending time with family and friends, and playing or watching athletics are right up there for Pennington. As a home renovator, she’s comfortable with a hammer or chop saw, and the avid reader said she is always looking for ways to learn. “I also really look for any opportunity to spend time by the water.”

Kristen Pennington as a third grader at Northview Public Schools’ Oakview Elementary

What kind of kid were you at the age of students at this new school? “I was a kid who really wanted to care for everyone. I was an includer. … I was also probably the spitfire of the family. My mom says I have the ‘Steel Magnolia’ effect. I am fuzzy and warm, but I have a super-strong backbone. 

“I also learned about emotional intelligence at a young age,” she said. Pennington’s parents divorced when she was in first grade. “They did an excellent job of helping us process what that meant, and that experience taught me so much. So I’ve always been in tune with empathy and paying really close attention to how people are feeling. I was also a kid who watched both of my parents remarry and have healthy relationships. I felt so lucky to see healthy relationships.”

The biggest lesson you have learned from students is … “Every child, every adult, is somebody’s child. Kids remind me that there is so much beauty in the world, that there is so much hope. When you walk through life-changing events with a child, to be a figure for them you’ve really got to keep your priorities in check.”

If I could go back to school I would go to … “Senior year of high school. That year was full of meaningful friendships, exciting athletic events and musical experiences I have carried with me throughout my life. It was such an exciting time to imagine what the next years had in store.”

At East Kentwood, “I had the fortunate experience to be in one of the most diverse high schools in the state, and that taught me a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion. It is an important part of who I am. At Forest Hills, they are doing a lot to be proud of here. We have such an opportunity to impact our kids’ thinking around these issues.”

Regarding starting as a new principal during the pandemic: What is the No. 1 positive change for schools you hope comes out of this? “I think what we are learning is that we can be connected at any distance, that the importance of relationships stands true, (and) that there is so much possibility. We acknowledge what’s lost, what’s left, and what’s still possible. We need to grieve, but our resiliency is going to shine through.”

If you walked into your new school building to theme music … would the song be? “I’m a huge Justin Timberlake fan, so I would totally choose ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling!’ That song is happy and light-hearted … and that is who I am.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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