Kennebunk High School Environmental Action Team members Ella Boxall, second from left, Sadie Yentsch, center, Ainsley Morrison, second from right, and Lucas Nadeau, right, stand next to their adviser Isaac Schuchat, left, at Kennebunk Elementary School after they presented its proposal for a new courtyard at Kennebunk High during a school board meeting on Monday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Kennebunk High is set to put $20,000 toward revitalizing the school’s courtyard after a student-led movement pushed for change.

The money for courtyard renovations in the district’s new budget is a direct response to the activism by Kennebunk High students on the school’s Environmental Action Team, RSU 21 school board member Ira Camp said.

While that budget will require approval by the board and voters from the district’s three towns (Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel), the board and Superintendent Terri Cooper voiced their strong support for the courtyard renovations after a presentation by the team during a district meeting on Monday.

Teenagers across Maine have become increasingly mobilized in recent years, especially on environmental problems. The gains by the group of Kennebunk High students show the potential for that activism to spur local change.

Leadership of the school’s Environmental Action Team said they had known the courtyard needed a revamp since their first year. A survey it conducted of around 200 students found that 97 percent wanted to see changes in the space.

“The view from all the classrooms was this really desolate, uninspiring area,” team co-president Sadie Yentsch, 18, said. “We saw the potential for students, teachers and the community, as well as a place where people could learn about the environment.”

Speaking to faculty at Kennebunk High, the team found that the negative views of the courtyard were shared.

Faculty members compared the courtyard to a prison yard and said it made them feel “embarrassed,” “uninspired,” “lonely” and “lost,” according to a presentation by the group to the school board on Monday. One said the courtyard was like “like a dying leaf … left to the lonely, unforgiving elements.”

With its new proposal for the courtyard, the team hopes to create a welcoming space for students and teachers filled with plants, a community garden, picnic tables, benches, murals and opportunities for outside learning like an outdoor classroom.

The COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the usefulness of outdoor learning spaces, especially in fostering student creativity, said Ella Boxall, 18, project manager.

An early goal for the team is to create healthy soil across the perimeter: Tests conducted found that the courtyard’s soil is incapable of growing plants and holding water. The group hopes to remove the gravel and tarp and replace it with organic compost and other materials.

All materials would be sourced locally to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The project is expected to take at least a couple of years with the district planning on a continuous collaboration between administrators and students.

RSU 21 is still finalizing many details of the project, including the exact roles of the Environmental Action Team and administrative staff. However, some steps have already been undertaken, including the district’s director of operations bringing in a general contractor to examine the courtyard on Tuesday.

The actions are a long-time coming. Team leaders noted that previous groups had unsuccessfully pushed for changes to the courtyard in prior years.

RSU 21 Director of Operations Richard Terwilliger-Smith, second from right, speaks in front of members of Kennebunk High School’s Environmental Action Team as the group gave a presentation for its proposal on a new courtyard at a school board meeting on Monday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

The team evolved out of a previous environmental club at Kennebunk High that focused more on education. However, Yentsch and co-president Lucas Nadeau, 18, had wanted to move it toward direct action, organizing responses like beach clean-ups that had real effects on the local environment.

“Sitting around and talking is important,” said Ainsley Morrison, 18, social media manager of the team. “But we did that for the past two years. It’s time to do stuff.”

In September, the group enlisted the help of adviser Isaac Schuchat, 25, of Portland, who collaborates with the district as part of his work as assistant director of programs and outreach for the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust.

Schuchat said he had been inspired by the leadership shown by students at Kennebunk High on the project. It could set an example for other schools across Maine, he said.

“All they’ve done this year is a testament to the ‘action’ in their name,” Schuchat said.

All four members of leadership are seniors set to graduate in just a few months. They will never experience the new courtyard as high schoolers.

But that doesn’t matter to them. Each has younger siblings or cousins within the school’s system. And this project was ultimately about the school’s future rather than themselves, they said. Younger students are set to take the reins once they each graduate.

From waking up early in the morning for meetings to gathering on days outside of school, countless hours of effort had gone into the project, Morrison said. She and others on the team said the response from the district had been gratifying.

“I have a lot of pride … that we’ve garnered as much support as we have from the community,” Morrison said. “It’s something that we should be proud of.”

Kennebunk High principal Jeremie Sirois said he knew the team’s proposal would gain traction once he met with them. Seeing his students present to the school board on Monday made him proud, he said.

“They’re high-fliers. They’re go-getters. They want to see something done,” Sirois said. “I support it.”