The principal of Kennebunk High School in Maine believes devoutly in letting students have a say in how they're educated. He also knows the risks.
The game is Sexual Jeopardy, and it’s being played at Kennebunk High School in southern Maine on this Friday morning in mid-May. The air ripples with tension as the boys’ team—made up of eight 9th through 12th graders—waits to see if its answer to the last question, about guarding against infection, is correct.
“It’s OK to use Saran Wrap during oral sex,” the adult moderator affirms.
“All right!” the boys yell, trading high-fives all around. They’ve earned 300 points, which puts them to within 200 points of the girls’ team sitting on the other side of the classroom. They’ve also earned the admiration of Lauren Grouse, who’s not only the moderator but also an educator-trainer for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. She’s impressed that the boys also knew that the microwavable version of Saran Wrap—too porous to prevent infection—should never be used.
The classroom door opens quietly, and in slips Stephanie Sluyter, a 17-year-old junior, who wants to see how the game is going. It’s Wellness Day at Kennebunk High, and Stephanie is chairing the student committee that’s been organizing the event since last fall. In classrooms throughout the school and on the grounds outside, 46 workshops, all supervised by adults, are engaging 850 students “in fun ways to deal with teen issues,” as Stephanie explained earlier. The workshops also include activities like Tai Chi, jewelrymaking, and rock climbing—selected to make the event an enjoyable experience in holistic learning.
At this student-centered school, learning includes sex education. The girls’ team chooses “sexually transmitted diseases” for 300 points. Although the game is modeled after Jeopardy, the TV show’s answer-with-a-question format has been scrapped to simplify things. Grouse picks a question and reads, “Is it easier for a male or a female to get an STD from an infected partner, and why?”
The half-dozen girls lean their heads together for discussion, then a senior answers, “It’s easier for a boy since a girl’s acidity level is higher.”
“Good guess,” Grouse responds sincerely, “but it’s females because we have more surface area and the skin of the vagina is a mucous membrane, like inside your nose, where little scratches occur. A woman is eight times more likely to contract HIV from having sex once from an infected partner than a man.”
Just for an instant—before sighing with disappointment for getting the answer wrong—the girls shudder.
It’s not too hard to imagine others, parents and educators, for instance, shuddering at this scene. But Nelson Beaudoin, Kennebunk’s 55-year-old principal, who is largely responsible for making Wellness Day possible, makes no apologies. “A school shouldn’t shy away from educating kids about sexual problems out of fear someone will complain,” he says. In fact, whenever he arranges a presentation—last year, one topic was “date rape and relationship violence”—parents send letters and e-mails “thanking me for caring enough to do it,” he adds.
Near the entrance to the 60-year-old, Colonial-style, red-brick school, Stephanie has set up a table for schedule-change requests. The lean, diminutive principal—in jeans and a denim shirt, his brown eyes gleaming—quietly stands beside it, smiling as high schoolers rush by, moving from one workshop to another. One demonstration taking place outside features a local police officer using “fatal vision” goggles to show the dangerously disorienting effects alcohol has on driving. Tonight, it turns out, is the prom.
Stephanie stops by and asks Beaudoin how to replace an adult instructor who’s called in with a family emergency. He spends a few minutes advising her, but otherwise, the principal lets Stephanie and her cohort of 20 volunteers handle Wellness Day on their own. It’s the same kind of approach he takes with the other student-led activities he’s helped develop since arriving at Kennebunk High in 2001. Students supervise parent-teacher conferences, they help hire new staff, every one of them is invited to participate in student government, and two sit on the district’s school board, although they don’t vote.
The engine for Beaudoin’s version of school reform is what he calls “the magic of student voice” in his upcoming book, Elevating Student Voice: How To Enhance Participation, Citizenship, and Leadership. Student voice is not merely a matter of encouraging teenagers to express themselves but a praxis of choice based on democratic principals and balanced with responsibility. The result is an engaged student body that has transformed school culture. “Once [the engine] picks up steam, it is difficult to derail,” Beaudoin notes in the book.
Student voice, however, is also a work in progress. There have been some bumps along the road, and not every teacher at Kennebunk is as enthusiastic about Beaudoin’s approach as the kids are. “Teachers complain most about the scale tipping so much in favor of students,” says one faculty member. “They feel the administration perceives teacher input as less important.”
Joe Foster fingers his wire-rimmed glasses on Thursday, Wellness Day eve, as his 16 AP English students push their desks into a discussion circle. Looking remarkably like comedian Jonathan Winters, the 37-year Kennebunk High veteran seems about to tell a joke but says instead, “The last essay will be an assessment of your 12 years of schooling.” Because his seniors took the AP exam last week, Foster is offering one last chance to provide meaningful feedback on their educational experiences. “Today,” he continues, “let’s talk about what you’d say about high school.”
“I’d make it so more kids did experiential learning,” says Caroline Hayes. “You can do anything you want within the graduation requirements here.”
Last spring, Caroline—who has black hair, high cheekbones, and a determined look about her—stretched the meaning of “anything” when she told Beaudoin she had an opportunity to spend the upcoming fall semester in Ireland, working as a nanny for relatives. It was like a scene from Beaudoin’s first book, Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone: Lessons for School Leaders, a collection of stories from his 34-year career illustrating the benefits of taking risks by listening closely to students. “This route may lead to high levels of anxiety and tension,” he writes, “but it also leads to excitement and inspiration.”
Instead of worrying that Caroline would slack off without school or parental supervision, Beaudoin arranged for her to keep up with reading assignments and essays for French and AP English classes via e-mail. Caroline became a foreign correspondent for the school newspaper and kept an extensive journal chronicling her experiences. When she returned after Christmas break, she “gave an exhibition on the whole package—leaving home, being an American in Europe, the meaning of family and independence, and on traveling though Ireland—that was incredible,” Beaudoin recalls, beaming with pride.
“Putting power in students’ hands,” Caroline tells her classmates, “motivates us to work harder.”
Another AP English student, Tessa Winter, remembers approaching Beaudoin with her own dilemma at the beginning of her freshman year, in 2001, when he was just starting at Kennebunk High. Tessa—who’s short and thin, with an angelic face—had planned to take a long list of honors and AP classes during high school, only to discover many scheduling conflicts. She says she consulted several teachers who expressed sympathy but said she’d simply have to limit her choices. Beaudoin didn’t concur.
“He let me take some classes in alternative ways,” she recalls. “For my health credit, I interned with my father, who’s a doctor.” Other courses, like honors history, Beaudoin arranged as an independent study with a faculty adviser. At freshman year’s end, Tessa gave an impressive presentation about leadership styles through the centuries. She was then permitted to take highly demanding courses like AP calculus as independent study, eventually scoring 4 out of 5 on the exam.
Tessa’s and Caroline’s arrangements inspired other students to voice their goals. Today, more than 100 enroll in independent-study classes, some to pursue interests, others to satisfy graduation requirements. A sense of ownership is one of the reasons why the number of students aspiring to higher levels of achievement has increased at KHS. In 2002, for example, 25 students sat for 36 AP exams; this year, 71 students took 112 of the tests. And the passing rate has gone from 80 percent to 88 percent during that same period.
Of course, picturesque Kennebunk is no low-income town. It, along with neighboring Kennebunkport, best known as a vacation retreat for the Bush family, is populated primarily by middle- to upper-middle-class families living in handsome clapboard houses in relatively crime-free neighborhoods. Ninety-eight percent of the students at Kennebunk High are white, and just 15 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. So this is a school that, at least in terms of resources, has never wanted for much.
Still, Beaudoin’s tenure has brought with it signs that the student body is more engaged than it used to be. While the average SAT score at Kennebunk has held steady at 1060 (out of a possible 1600), the number of students who take the college-entrance exam and then go on to four-year institutions has risen from 64 percent to 75 percent in the past three years. Also impressive is the affirmative response to the question “Does this school make you enthusiastic about learning?” which Beaudoin asks annually. In 2002, 26 percent said yes; this year, 75 percent did so.
Student voice also entices top students from families with means to remain in the public school system. Tessa had the option of transferring to an elite private school but chose to stay at Kennebunk and was accepted at Dartmouth College. Overall, transfers have declined, especially among high achievers, despite the community’s growing number of affluent families.
Thomas Farrell took the district superintendent post two years ago after serving in the same capacity for 13 years in Aspen, Colorado. With a PhD in education, he has spoken as a consultant on drug education and prevention at schools nationwide and in 10 countries, and he plans to introduce the rigorous international baccalaureate program in the high school next year. Of Beaudoin’s efforts at Kennebunk High, Farrell says, “Students have more say in their education here than anywhere I’ve been.”
Teacher input, however, is another story—one best told after glimpsing what Kennebunk High looked like before Beaudoin arrived and just where the principal came from.
“Nelson Beaudoin changed the whole tone of the school,” says Mary Aaskov, explaining that her daughter, Sarah, who’s a senior this spring, had a much happier experience at Kennebunk High than her son, Michael, who graduated prior to Beaudoin’s arrival.
For many years, according to parents and teachers interviewed for this story, Kennebunk was a high-functioning traditional institution. In fact, it was recognized in 1990-91 as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. Unfortunately, a rigid, top-down administration took over the school about the same time, frustrating teachers, students, and, eventually, parents, who formed an oversight committee to seek a new principal and effect long-needed reforms.
Beaudoin was happily employed as principal of Leavitt Area High School in Turner, about 70 miles upstate. He’d been recognized there by the National Association of Secondary School Principals as Maine’s principal of the year in 2000. In summer 2001, he was coaching a team of Kennebunk teachers at a leadership workshop, where he was given a firsthand account of the negative atmosphere at the school. Immediately, he saw the opportunity to apply the student-voice theories and practices he’d developed over the years to what he considered a school in need.
Ironically, Beaudoin didn’t have much of a voice when he started kindergarten, at age 5. He and his family had emigrated from Quebec in the 1940s so that his father could work as a lumberjack in northern Maine. But they didn’t know any English and conversed only in French at home. Beaudoin says he was a terrible student who came close to failing secondary school. “It’s amazing I’m an educator and a writer,” he says, seated in an office adorned with photos of his wife, Sharon, who’s a PE teacher at an elementary school, and their two grown sons. Because it’s not casual Friday, Beaudoin is wearing a trademark dark suit and tie. His hair, once brown, is now mostly gray, and although he’s energetic and exudes warmth, a 40-year smoking habit has wrinkled his face. Beaudoin quit last year and put on 15 pounds as a result. Even so, he’s a trim 155 pounds.
“In high school I read one book, Bob Cousy’s Basketball Is My Life,” he continues. The only reason he went to the University of Maine was to play the game, despite being just 5 feet 7 inches tall. He graduated with a 2.3 grade-point average, then began his education career as a PE teacher and basketball coach. “I still had a thick French accent,” he recalls, “and felt lower than anyone on staff.”
But Beaudoin showed a talent for leadership, and he soon became an athletic director. Eventually he adopted a New England accent and earned a master’s in education from Boston University in 1980. The next year, he was hired as an assistant principal, then in 1994 fulfilled his ambition of becoming a principal. Finally he felt free to apply what he’d learned years before while coaching, following advice he’d heard from Red Auerbach, the Boston Celtic’s legendary coach: “Don’t be so domineering that you want to show and prove that you’re the boss every day. ... Do your job. But listen to people.”
Upon his arrival at Kennebunk, Beaudoin announced he’d adopt the more than 40 changes the parents’ committee was recommending. “All their ideas made sense, like communicating with families by e-mail,” Beaudoin recalls, “and by agreeing preemptively, [I] gained their trust.”
But the students were a bigger challenge. When Beaudoin made plans to address the entire student body during an assembly, he was warned by teachers that more than a few kids might act disrespectfully. The new principal’s impish smile and soothing baritone put the students at ease, however. He won them over with several rules adjustments that they’d been asking for—permission to use portable CD players during study hall, for example. Toward the end of the assembly, he announced: “The first 90 students to sign up will be allowed to attend what I call ‘Challenge Night.’ That’s all I can tell you because it’s a mystery, but if you don’t sign up, you’ll wish you had.”
The first Challenge Night, according to students and teachers who were there, was extraordinary. It took place on a Thursday evening, and 90 students from grades 9 to 12 showed, engaging, for four hours, in activities that included watching and discussing a video on bullying, then “crossing the line,” an exercise in which students were asked to cross the gym floor if they’d ever been picked on or ridiculed. “Every single boy and girl took the walk,” Beaudoin remembers. “It was the most emotional part; students were crying and hugging each other.”
The kids also suggested ways to improve the school and pledged to be kind and friendly. Bullying and harassment had become so prevalent at Kennebunk that parents were recommending more surveillance in the hallways. “Instead, I gave the problem to the kids and let them solve it. In essence, that’s what I do as a principal,” Beaudoin explains.
Thanks to word-of-mouth and some propaganda on Beaudoin’s part, three more Challenge Nights followed, until most of the school had attended, each student earning a fluorescent-orange T-shirt inscribed with “Crossing the Line, 2001.”
“It kept feeding on itself,” Beaudoin recalls, “until we reached critical mass where enough kids were saying what they wanted their school to be like and became convinced they had the power to revolutionize it.”
Parents and students say that cliquish, and sometimes nasty, behaviors decreased dramatically. “Soon students were sprinting to my door since they’d had so many issues with the way the school was run before,” Beaudoin recounts. In Elevating Student Voice, he writes, “The lesson here for educatorsis that seeking to inspire will pay greater dividends than seeking to control.”
Not every teacher at Kennebunk High concurs with Beaudoin. And some have complained about programs that are “overindulgent”—the student advisory groups, for example, and the student-led parent-teacher conferences. “I do hear occasional rumblings from my colleagues,” remarks Joe Foster, who heads the English department. “[Beaudoin’s] student-centered approach almost always errs on the side of the student, when push comes to shove, according to his critics on staff.”
They complain, Foster adds, about “accommodating an uncooperative student in the classroom longer than the teacher thinks prudent” and “making the umpteenth deal with a failing student to try to find a way for him or her to pass.”
Even Foster was troubled by Beaudoin’s recent decision to add two students to the school’s hiring committee, where they were able to interview prospective teachers and help the staff decide who was KHS material. “They asked excellent questions,” Foster says. “Still, I am a bit concerned that such arrangements could inhibit thorough discussion if sensitive issues about a candidate were raised.”
Molly Pierce, a 29-year-old English teacher, backs up Foster’s concerns but quickly adds that Beaudoin is a “marvelous administrator.”
As for the man himself, he admits that early on, he was much more focused on the kids than the faculty. “I should have involved the teachers more in the decisionmaking process,” he says. “But they were so desperate for leadership when I arrived, there was no need.”
He has, however, been listening to their concerns. Beaudoin negotiated a schedule change with the school board, allowing for what he calls “late-start Wednesday,” when classes begin at 9:30 instead of 8 a.m., so that the staff can conduct weekly professional development workshops. Beaudoin says he plans to address more teacher issues in the coming year.
Meantime, it’s after school on Thursday, and Beaudoin is sitting in the middle of a small group of teenagers attending a student council meeting in Kennebunk High’s chorus room. He listens as they discuss some of the governance challenges that the principal has precipitated.
“Student voice created all these groups, but it’s too organic and confusing,” laments Elise Wakeland, the student council president.
“It would be so much easier if we had one place to go with ideas,” Sarah Aaskov adds.
Beaudoin, it turns out, has not only made KHS kid-friendly; he’s also made it student-group-friendly. After his arrival, existing student organizations experienced a resurgence of purpose and membership while new groups flourished. “A junior girl walked into my office with the idea that she and her classmates should go to the middle school and connect with 8th graders so they’d already know some seniors when they got here who’d mentor them,” Beaudoin says, recalling the origin of one group. “Now we have 30 students in KHS Connections who host an orientation day for the freshmen.”
Equally impressive is the student council itself. Although just a handful of kids are attending today’s end-of-year meeting, increasing numbers of students clamoring for involvement in collective decisionmaking resulted in the student council being opened up to all, not just elected officials. Usually on Wednesday evenings, 30 to 60 students gather to plan social events like homecoming and Spirit Week. They also debate policy questions—concerning security, for example. “I let the students wrestle with the problem,” Beaudoin explains. “Eventually [surveillance] cameras became their idea, and they supported it without resentment.”
But because the desire for participation kept growing, a student forum evolved during school hours for which roughly 60 students convened to fulfill many of the same functions as the council. Class governance became a committee system, with six to eight elected members per grade organizing class activities carried out by dozens of volunteers. The result is that many groups are duplicating each other’s efforts without coordination, the very point raised by Elise in this particular meeting.
“We probably did it backwards compared to other schools,” Beaudoin responds. “But, in the long run, I think grassroots-up was better than trying to impose a structure.”
“Maybe the student council could act like Congress, where students bring bills,” Elise suggests. That way, she adds, the council can reclaim governance without squelching the broad-based student presence.
To resolve these kinds of issues, Beaudoin plans to host a Challenge Night in late August. He and student leaders will craft a series of workshops designed to help everyone reach a consensus. Beaudoin says he’ll also invite teachers, hoping they can find a way into the governance system, possibly as a sort of senate to the students’ house of representatives—and, of course, to his administration.
On Friday evening, after Wellness Day is over, Beaudoin and his wife sit in armchairs flanking a table in the foyer of the Italian Heritage Center in Portland as students begin arriving for the prom. Staging the event outside of town is considered a major coup. It had been requested long before Beaudoin’s arrival, and in 2002, he was able to convince the school board and parents to forgo their fears of drinking-related traffic accidents.
“If you give kids respect and rights,” Beaudoin says as music plays in the background, “they will take responsibility.”
Christian Schwebler strides past the principal arm in arm with Katherine Cerrone. The prom’s theme is “Classic Hollywood,” and the two seniors are appropriately attired—Katherine in a sleek pink gown, Christian in a white jacket, a gray vest, and black pants. Just a moment before, they had stepped onto the red carpet that now delivers them to a ballroom glittering with chandeliers and strands of hanging lights.
As other couples follow, Beaudoin notes that Kelsey Shields’ older sister, Lindsey, and their mother, Wendy Gibson-Gray, have been standing nearby for 90 minutes, waiting patiently for Kelsey so they can perform a family ritual. When Kelsey was a freshman and Lindsey a senior, Mom took a photo of her girls with the principal, which he then mounted on the bulletin board in his office. Every year since, Gibson-Gray has insisted that Kelsey pose with Beaudoin to memorialize the wonderful year she’d just had at Kennebunk High.
Finally Kelsey makes her entrance, in a teal gown set off against long black hair—a combination that will later prompt Molly Pierce, the English teacher, to call her “strikingly beautiful and fashion-forward.” But both Pierce and Beaudoin are even more impressed with Kelsey’s determination to perform well at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice this coming fall. And in Beaudoin’s estimation, nothing tops Kelsey’s volunteering to march and sit with a severely disabled classmate at the upcoming graduation ceremony.
As proud as Gibson-Gray is of her daughter, she gives the principal much of the credit. “Mr. Beaudoin developed such a special relationship with my daughters and accommodated their desires in schooling,” she says. “I hope he stays at Kennebunk for my son, who’s a sophomore—and my youngest daughter, in the 4th grade.”
Vol. 17, Issue 01, Pages 30-35
- Nelson Beaudoin is an education consultant and speaker as well as principal of Kennebunk High School in Kennebunk, Maine.
- Read excerpts from Beaudoin's first book, Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone: Lessons for School Leaders (Eye on Education Press), a compilation of successful high school reform stories.
- National Association of Secondary School Principals has published "Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform," a guide on high school reform and student engagement for school leaders.
- The Annenberg Public Policy Center has created a Student Voices Project that encourages the civic engagement of young people. Includes a curriculum, as well as links to local programs.