Kevin Alexander

When Kevin Alexander jumps onto the front bumper of your car, grinning and bouncing so hard that you almost hit the ceiling, it's hard to remember that he's also the Northwest School's Dean of Students. And yet it makes perfect sense that this phenomenally good-natured everybody's-best-pal also is responsible for a very firm code of student discipline.

He is, after all, the perfect embodiment of the school's high-spirited approach to education: a deeply serious respect for the individual, for the community, and for academic excellence, all wrapped in an exterior of exuberant good will.

Kevin didn't always fit his job so well. After graduating with a business major from Boston College in 1987, he became Assistant Dean at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, a Jesuit school for 800 boys. His major qualification for that job, he jokes, is that as the second of eight kids in a Polish Catholic family, born behind "an overachiever," he'd had "lots of personal experience with school administrators."

After three years of enforcing rules and supervising detention at Fordham in a program called Judgment Under God (JUG), Kevin lit out for Seattle. By 1991 he was teaching young children in a Head Start program, but earning more money as a dishwasher at the Honey Bear Bakery. He liked teaching though, so when his future wife, NWS Administrative Assistant Ann Muno, told him her school needed a dean who could teach, his real life began.

After Fordham Prep, Kevin says, "walking into The Northwest School gave me the educational bends." He was "shocked" by the differences between the casual atmosphere of his new environment and the rigid tradition of the old. "It wasn't obvious how this place worked," he recalls. "I mean first names; I came with a name plate that said 'Mr. Alexander'." Kevin felt real sympathy for the east-coast transplant who came to his office on the first day of school and sobbed, "They have blue hair here! I want to go to a different school!" "I was with him," Kevin laughs.

Of course, neither left. What Kevin remembers most about those early years is the process of growing into the unique culture of this school. "So many people helped me," he says, recalling a day in his first year when he had to tell two students why they needed to go home after a fight. "I just wasn't finding the right words, and then Herb (Bergamini) came over very quietly and explained to these boys that when they clenched their fists, they had taken themselves out of our community. It absolutely opened my eyes to this place. Herb got that from Mark (Terry.) That's how the culture of this school spreads."

Since then, Kevin himself has been among the strongest teachers of that culture, simply because he lives it. He conveys its serious commitment to academic excellence by insisting that students bring their best efforts to the classroom every day. He transmits its guiding principle of respect for others by his total insistence that students obey the rules of courtesy and common sense. News of Kevin's frequent antics, such as showing up on Halloween dressed in senior Sam S.'s distinctive clothing, spreads through the school in seconds and makes everyone laugh. News of his displeasure over a rare incident of disrespect or cheating spreads just as quickly. For all his good humor, no one can drain the color out of a misbehaving student's face faster than Kevin, with his clipped "Wait for me in my office."

And no one can be a better example of personal integrity. A few years ago, Kevin set out to boost a faltering student effort to raise funds for a homeless shelter by pledging to cut his hair if donations reached $1,500 in one quint. Students and teachers raised $1,600 and raffled off the chance to chop Kevin's ponytail in front of the whole school. "I didn't anticipate the faculty's desire to see me publicly humiliated," he laughs. He walked into the packed Commons looking pale and a little grim, and it was clear that this was a personal sacrifice he wouldn't have chosen. "It was hard to lose the hair," he admits now, recalling that he got the shortest haircut he'd had since he was three years old. But he had made a promise, and though the students laughed and cheered, most understood that they were seeing Kevin keep his word just because he had given it.

They also were seeing the side of their Dean of Students that is deeply committed to community service. "I come from the Catholic tradition of social justice, of treating others the way you'd want them to treat you," he says. "Ellen (Taussig) comes from the Jewish tradition; we say we're teaching the Humenschities." By which he means, "we don't just tell kids that society has problems. We try to give them experiences in serving the community that provide an idea of how to solve those problems."

And in typical fashion, Kevin gets personally involved in ways that make others both laugh and get active. Did he want to keep the school open all night for Movie Night, an event he calls "a cocktail of sleep deprivation, caffeine, sugar, and hormones?" No, he says, "I'd rather cover myself with bacon and run through the grizzly bear exhibit at the zoo." But because the event inspired juniors and seniors to raise more money to buy mattresses, wiring, paint, drywall and refrigerators for migrant camps in the Skagit Valley, Kevin stalked the halls on Movie Night until dawn.

Even grousing about dawn patrol doesn't disguise the pleasure he takes in being with students under any circumstances. Over time, that attitude has been a valuable gift to many parents. It's not uncommon to go into a conference about a child feeling disappointed or worried, but to emerge with a more positive way of seeing and interacting with that child that can last for years. "I love watching our kids grow here," he grins. "Every year I see them moving along this continuum, learning courtesy and common sense by Braille. It's enough to keep alive a nagging sense of optimism that every kid will figure it out."

-- NWS News Magazine, January 2004

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