Retiring Subrina Parker ‘Beat the Odds’ to Become Star Teacher and Kiptopeke Principal

Kiptopeke Elementary School Principal Subrina Parker stands next to a farewell message posted in the school. Photo by Stefanie Jackson.

By Stefanie Jackson – Subrina Parker, principal of Kiptopeke Elementary School, may be retiring, but her story isn’t over yet. 

It started in Townsend, where she was born Subrina Owens and was raised in the same house she lives in now.

She attended Northampton County Public Schools from kindergarten through 12th grade: Cheriton Primary School for grades K to 3 and Capeville Elementary for grades 4 to 6 followed by Northampton Middle School and Northampton High School, from which she graduated in 1986.

“I beat the odds,” said Parker, who had her first child during her senior year of high school, then had a second child in December of her freshman year of college.

Her grandmother, mother, brothers, and sister all pitched in to help care for her children so she could complete her education and get her college degree. “I am so grateful for my strong family,” Parker said.

She attended Old Dominion University with the intention of becoming a dental hygienist. She did not become a dental hygienist but completed ODU’s dental assistant program. (A dental assistant can provide some dental care under a dentist’s supervision, but a dental hygienist can provide preventative care without supervision.)

Parker returned home to the Eastern Shore in 1988 and worked as an instructional assistant in fifth grade at Machipongo Elementary School. “That’s what changed my life,” she said.

She assisted Josephine Ferebee, who taught in Northampton schools for 30 years. Ferebee died in 2021 at age 84. 

Working with Ferebee “was the best experience. It was at that point I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Parker said.

She liked how Ferebee managed her classroom and built relationships with her students. Ferebee was firm but consistent and fair. She and her students respected each other, and no matter what, “the kids knew she loved them,” Parker said. The people at Machipongo Elementary made “you feel like family.”

Parker resumed her studies at ODU and changed her major to middle education; she graduated in 1992.

In between quitting her job as an instructional assistant and going back to college, she was a substitute teacher, and through that experience Parker learned that she wanted to teach slightly older students.

She started teaching in the 1992-1993 school year, a sixth grade class at Machipongo Elementary School.

Parker was recruited by then-associate superintendent Berkeley Ashby, when Dawn Goldstine was superintendent.

Parker has held several different positions in education, all in Northampton County. 

She was one of the first teachers to work at the TECH Center, Northampton’s alternative school.

Parker started at Kiptopeke Elementary School in 1995 and taught there until 2004.

Then she became the academic dean of students, a new position created by Superintendent Mary Kay English. Parker was based at the high school and her role was somewhat similar to a guidance counselor. She held that position for two or three years and later became the division teacher mentor.

When Parker was the division teacher mentor, Karen Foley was the assistant principal of Kiptopeke Elementary, and in 2009, the two women swapped jobs.

Parker was Kiptopeke’s assistant principal until 2013, when she became its principal, a position she’s held for nearly a decade.

The greatest accolade Parker ever received for her work was the National Milken Award she won in 2002, which is like “the Oscars of teaching,” she said.

Parker was presented the “big check” for the $25,000 award in October 2002, but the actual award ceremony in California was not scheduled until May 2003.

The Milken Family Foundation paid for plane tickets for Parker and one guest to attend the ceremony. Parker’s sister had planned to accompany her but was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have surgery and was unable to take the trip.

On short notice, Gwyn Coghill, who taught Parker in fifth grade and became her all-time favorite teacher, made the trip instead.

Coghill had planned the retirement dinner for Superintendent Goldstine and had to catch her flight as soon as the celebration ended. Parker had arrived in California the day before; it was her first trip to the state and the first time she had flown.

Parker said she’s “forever grateful” to Coghill for being there for her on one of the biggest nights of her life.

Parker also recalled her three favorite accomplishments as principal of Kiptopeke Elementary School.

When she became principal, the school had been denied accreditation by the Virginia Department of Education. However, after three years, Kiptopeke was awarded full accreditation.

Parker also got the school involved in the annual February Freeze that benefits Habitat for Humanity. Kiptopeke had never participated in the charitable event before she was principal, but now February Freeze is “part of the culture” of the school.

She also was grateful for the opportunity to partner with the community to clean up a natural area in front of the school and convert it into an amphitheater called Discovery Park. Parker noted the amphitheater had just been used for the sixth grade recognition ceremony.

Parker said she has faced many challenges that she had to overcome to achieve success in life. She grew up poor, although she didn’t know her family was poor at the time. She was taught to take care of things – if you had a dirt floor, you swept it, Parker said.

She was a single mother of two at age 18, and she faced the loss of a third child who lived only one month.

Commuting to ODU was uncommon when Parker attended the college, but she did it.

Not only did she succeed, but her daughters did, too.

After witnessing the life of a teacher behind the scenes, both daughters vowed not to enter the education field; when they went to college, one studied biology and the other studied chemistry.

Now Parker’s elder daughter, Shantelle Brinkley, is the assistant principal of Gloucester High School, a little more than two hours away, in Gloucester, Va., and Parker’s younger daughter, SuCora Owens, is the principal of Nandua Middle School.

There is more to Parker’s story – enough to fill a book that she plans to write someday. She hopes her story will inspire hard work and determination in others.

 “I feel accomplished, but it’s my time to go and think about the next chapter of my life,” she said of her upcoming retirement.

Parker felt the need to take an extended break after working as an elementary school principal through the COVID-19 pandemic that lasted more than two years, but she didn’t want to resign, so she opted for retirement.

She said she will resume her career, but she doesn’t want to be a principal – she wants to be a teacher again.

Parker said teaching is about “more than a textbook, it’s about allowing children to grow, people to grow,” and that’s what she’s about.

Teaching is “the gift that God has given me.”

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