Principal organizes unique exchange program

Don Austin, ’93 and principal of Laguna Beach High School in California, far left, Winona Secondary School principal Charlie Parkerson, second from left, and students from the two schools

A chance meeting with a colleague from across the country has transformed into an inspiring educational journey for Don Austin, Baker alumnus and principal of Laguna Beach High School in California.

Laguna Beach, a National Blue Ribbon High School in Orange County with an enrollment of 1,000 students, was showcased a few years ago on the MTV series, “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.” In late September, the school opened its doors to four students from Winona Secondary School, located near the Mississippi Delta, and their principal, Charlie Parkerson. The average family income in Laguna Beach is $97,000, a sharp contrast to the $25,000 for families in Winona.

For one week, the students from Winona immersed themselves in classroom discussions, extracurricular activities and cultural experiences while living with host families. Early next year, Austin and four Laguna students will travel to Winona to experience life at the Mississippi school.

Sharing and Working Together

Although some may label the experience as a glorified field trip, Austin prefers to classify it as a movement. He views the exchange as a learning experience in which people start sharing and working together, rather than looking at just the school’s standardized test scores.

“This was not about fortunate or less fortunate,” said Austin, a 1993 Baker University graduate and former football player for the Wildcats. “I had no expectations that our guests are less fortunate. Both sides will see things foreign to their daily lives. I fully expect both sides to find more in common than different. They will share insecurities, fears and shortcomings. They will also share some strengths, skills and potential. This is absolutely a two-way experience with both schools serving as the teacher and the student. It’s time to stop learning from programs and learn from other people.”

The innovative program sparked interest in the Laguna community. Corporate sponsors Balfour and Hurley Surfline contributed funds to the project, providing airfare to the students and principal.

“They saw the value of this concept and committed to helping before the plan was anywhere near complete,” Austin said.

Enjoying Southern California Attractions

While in California, the visitors from Mississippi attended a Los Angeles Angels baseball game, received lessons from a surfing legend, and toured Soka University, Birch Aquarium at the San Diego Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Disneyland before attending a UCLA football game in the Rose Bowl.

The idea for the exchange stemmed from a meeting between Austin and the Winona principal earlier in the year in Phoenix. The two shared phone numbers and were in contact a couple of days later.

“We talked about the differences and similarities between our towns and our kids,” Austin said. “We hypothesized that our kids would get along beautifully and that we could learn from each other. No region of the country, ideology or socio-economic status group holds a monopoly on good ideas. I hope both sides will come away with a better understanding of that fundamental truth.”

Applying What He Learned at Baker

Austin thought of his alma mater in Baldwin City often while developing plans with the Mississippi school to connect the students from two different regions. He has been a high school principal for 11 years, including five at Laguna Beach.

“Baker prepared me the most through critical thinking, reasoning and writing,” said Austin, a member of Kappa Sigma. “Dr. Richard Botkin was a huge influence. And I also valued the lessons I learned from Peggy Harris and Lowell Gish in my education courses.”

Originally from California, Austin played two years of football at Baker — one under Dan Harris and one under Charlie Richard after he transferred from a community college in San Diego. His wife, the former Paula Hutchings, is a graduate of Baker, where they met. Paula is originally from San Diego, and Austin helped recruit her to Baldwin City while working in the admission office.

After graduating from Baker, Austin served as a student teacher in Bonner Springs. He returned to California after Richard tipped him off on a job opening for a coach and teacher.

“The people at Baker were always looking out for our best interests,” Austin said. “I enjoy applying what I learned from my time in Baldwin City to what I do daily as a principal. This idea to connect the two schools equally energizes two such seemingly different communities, so we must be on the right track.”

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