WEST PARIS — Agnes Gray Elementary School’s longtime Principal Elizabeth Clarke has resigned from her position, citing ongoing health concerns.

SAD 17 Superintendent Dr. Monica Henson made the announcement to school staff on Dec. 14.

“I have accepted the resignation of Beth Clarke, with regret for the health issues she has struggled with and with gratitude for the years of service she has dedicated to the school and the district,” Henson said.

Elizabeth Clarke is a champion of experiential education. As principal of Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris, Clarke facilitated the addition of an outdoor learning “cabin” to the school’s curriculum in 2017 and, in 2021, secured a Maine Department of Education $250,000 grant that includes a dedicated outdoor education coordinator, yurt classroom and all-weather gear for students. Clarke recently resigned from SAD 17. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Clark, an avid proponent of outdoor and experiential education, has fashioned the West Paris elementary school into a model for nature-based learning that has inspired other educators, inside and outside Oxford Hills, to follow.

In 2017, she spearheaded the effort to build an outdoor classroom at the school, a cabin that became a base for other classrooms in the nearby woods and adjoining fields.

“Kids, families, staff, friends, it was a labor of love” to build the cabin in 2017, Clarke told the Advertiser Democrat last summer about the building project, noting that Grover Precision of Oxford was an important benefactor.


No one could have predicted how integral educating in nature would become to the school once COVID-19 and stringent public health policies resulted in school closures and sporadic in-person classrooms. After using the cabin for the last four years, Clarke then went big, scoring a grant from the Maine Department of Education for $250,000 to create a year-round curriculum that included a dedicated coordinator and a yurt classroom.

According to Agnes Gray’s Outdoor Learning Coordinator Sarah Timm, Clarke’s impact on the school is felt from the outside in.

“Supporting students with ACES, and building resiliency of both students and staff, has truly been the focus of her work here,” Timm said last Friday in an email statement. “This has included giving kids lots of opportunities to work and play outside, as well as exposure to mindfulness exercises, and also building a culture where we show kids every day that they’re important to us and they matter, regardless of their behavioral or academic strengths.”

“I’ve been teaching at Agnes Gray Elementary for 32 years and have seen a few principals come and go,” added Kindergarten Teacher Denise Biggers. “When Beth came, it was different. She was loving and caring and created an atmosphere of trust among the staff.

“The children soon learned that school was a safe, caring place to be. We have a lot of broken people who come to school, and it became a haven for these children. They could spend six and half hours in a warm, safe, nurturing place and learn.”

Clarke’s dedication to the school and community was evident in August of 2020 when local youths vandalized picnic tables at the school and attempted to break into the cabin classroom.


“I would like to invite them (the suspects) into school so we can have a restorative kind of conversation,” she said at the time. “I understand and respect that there will need to be legal consequences, but just as important is repairing the harm that was done to our school community.”

Agnes Gray’s first grade teacher Jenn Chafin also has a decades-long relationship with the outgoing principal, going back to when Clarke first joined SAD 17 as a literacy coach.

“We were coaches together until she was hired as the principal for the Hebron Station and Agnes Gray schools. Then, when a portion of my coaching time was allocated to Agnes Gray, Beth was my supervising administrator. When I decided to go back into the classroom as a teacher in 2016, Beth hired me as a first grade teacher at Agnes Gray.

“I have learned so many lessons about not only education, but about life from Beth. In a world where it is easy to get caught up in scores, tests, benchmarks, and the like, Beth was our reminder of how important strong relationships really are. There’s a sign on the front door of our school that reads, ‘Through these doors pass the finest humans in the world.’ Beth believes this with her whole heart. She sees strength and potential in people, rather than focusing on their deficits. She holds onto hope for our students until they are able to hold onto it for themselves.”

The recent grant, funded Rethinking Remote Education Ventures, played right into Clarke’s vision of getting children outdoors and engaged in their education through nature, although she admitted at that seeing inclusion of the word “remote” in the program grated against her COVID fatigue.

But then she realized that the definition of “remote” included outdoor education and immediately rallied her staff to develop a plan to expand their curriculum beyond the cabin. The answer was to create a second independent classroom outside that would provide shelter from the wind and weather and the solution was to add a yurt that could hold more students year-round.


Timm transitioned from her job as fifth grade teacher to outdoor education coordinator last summer. So far she has been working with the school’s other teachers to use the outdoors to complement their regular learning units without the benefit of the yurt, which is scheduled to arrive next spring.

She also spoke of Clarke’s impact on the students who pass through Agnes Gray.

“The first words out of Beth’s mouth whenever she sees students and staff are always, ‘I’m so glad to see you today! How are you?’” Timm said. “It’s not just a cursory greeting. She truly cares about the lives and well-being of each and every one of us, like ours is the most important conversation she will have all day. Every student in our classrooms knows that Mrs. Clarke loves them and believes in them with her whole heart and that she will do whatever she can to help them be safe, happy, healthy learners. They know that while they are at Agnes Gray, as well as after they leave, that Mrs. Clarke will always be an adult in their corner, advocating for and celebrating their success.”

When COVID-related protocols altered students’ daily routines at Agnes Gray, Clarke found ways to maintain them in new ways. They could no longer gather around the flagpole each morning so Clarke created a flagpole Zoom broadcast and wrote a new pledge to help them to stay engaged, healthy, kind and respectful at a distance.

“I had the privilege of working with Beth at Agnes Gray while I was teaching,” said Interim Principal Cathy Bickford, who transferred from Paris Elementary School when Clarke took a medical leave last fall. “Her love for the outdoors was evident as was her passion for students to get outside and learn.

“Beth has improved the outdoor learning environment at Agnes Gray and students will continue to benefit from this for many years to come. Beth was loved by her staff and will be greatly missed, but her legacy for outdoor learning will continue.”


“The climate and community she has cultivated at Agnes Gray is truly unique and special,” Timm said. “We are family, interconnected by the common goals, hopes, and experiences we share here in West Paris.”

Biggers invoked a quote from Benjamin Franklin when asked to summarize Clarke’s impact on Agnes Gray’s students as well as educators:  “’Tell me and I forget; Teach me and I may remember; Involve me and I learn.”

“I feel this is our legacy from Beth. We will remember and continue the atmosphere and care she gave to the children and staff, and she will not be forgotten, Biggers said.

“What will we miss the most? Just Beth.”

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