Meet the principal of Shaker Heights High School.
By Jennifer Proe
The answer: He is a one-time “Jeopardy” contestant, professional singer, avid runner, husband, father of three girls, Philadelphia Eagles fan, and the principal of Shaker Heights High School.
If you responded, “Who is Jonathan Kuehnle?,” congratulations – you qualify for the next round. But only if you can pronounce his name correctly.
“That’s easy,” says the one-time game show contestant. “You will now be keenly aware of how to pronounce my name.” That mnemonic device no doubt will help students, staff, parents and community members to address him by name when they see him in the halls, shopping at Heinen’s with his wife, Kimberly, a special education and history teacher, or out running in the Onaway neighborhood where he and his family have settled.
Says Kuehnle, “Everybody has been extremely welcoming, and almost disarmingly nice in a very genuine fashion, even before they knew I was the new high school principal. You hear about places like this, but it’s amazing to realize that now we are actually living in one.”
In true Shaker fashion, the Kuehnle family’s neighbors greeted them almost instantly with cookies and wine, and they invited the family over the same evening to roast s’mores. They warmly welcomed the couple’s three daughters, Hayley, 20, and identical twins Eavan and Ella, 12, who are in the sixth grade at Woodbury.
“The girls are very excited to have a pool at their new school,” says Kuehnle, “and we love that we can all walk to our respective schools.”
A Passion for History
Prior to coming to Shaker Heights, Kuehnle was the campus director for three years at Springfield High School in west-central Ohio.
He also served as principal of Circleville (Ohio) High School for three years, helping to achieve the school’s first “excellent” rating on school report cards and raising the graduation rate from 78 to 91 percent. He began his career in education as a middle school social studies teacher in the Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland and in the Northwest Local School District near Cincinnati.
History was one of three degrees Kuehnle achieved as an undergraduate at Miami University of Ohio, along with bachelor’s degrees in education for social studies and in diplomacy and foreign affairs. Fluent in German, he briefly considered a career in the foreign service after taking (and passing) the entrance exam on a dare from a friend – but happily stayed the course on teaching. He went on to the University of Cincinnati to complete his master’s in educational administration and then to Ohio State for his superintendent’s license.
Though born and bred in Toledo, Kuehnle spent most of his formative years in the Philadelphia area, where he traces his passion for history. “My parents divorced when I was young, and we ended up moving in with my grandmother in Philadelphia to make ends meet,” he explains. “Every day on my way to school, I passed the eternal flame dedicated to George Washington, walked across the bodies of Revolutionary War soldiers who were buried by the British head-down (so as to speed their descent to Hell for rebelling against the Crown), past Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. There’s so much essential history there, and being able to soak that all in as a kid was incredible,” says Kuehnle.
That love of history, combined with a knack for trivia, is what propelled the self-described “repository of useless knowledge” to his brush with fame as a contestant on the popular quiz show “Jeopardy” in April 2014.
“I was on one episode, so that tells you how I did,” says Kuehnle. However, he is proud of having met his three goals: “I got a Daily Double, I beat the defending champ, and I came away with enough winnings to cover my expenses on the show and then some,” he reports. (At the end of this article, you can try your luck on the Final Jeopardy answer to which Kuehnle gave the correct question, but was edged out by the other contestant for the win.)
Though he didn’t come out on top that day, his students were impressed with his performance. They told him, “Hands down, Mr. Kuehnle, you’re the smartest principal in Clark County!”
And naturally, he managed to turn the experience into a teachable moment for them. Building on their excitement, Kuehnle organized a Jeopardy-style tournament at Springfield High between staff and students. That effort grew into an academic challenge team, which is still going strong.
Cheering for a Cause
Kuehnle and his family left behind another legacy in Springfield that they hope to replicate in Shaker.
Ella Kuehnle has a rare form of Down syndrome. She also has a passion for cheerleading, which led the family to create an event called Cheer for a Cause.
“Two years ago, we teamed up with the varsity cheerleaders, the Rotary Club, and the County Board of Developmental Disabilities to put on a free event where people of all ages and various disabilities performed the half-time show at a Friday night varsity basketball game,” says Kuehnle. It was a huge success, and was repeated the following year.
The Kuehnle family has already connected with the local chapter of the Up Side of Downs so they can continue to support this cause. Kuehnle enjoys partnering with Ella for the organization’s annual Buddy Walk that raises awareness about Down syndrome.
He also laces up his Shaker-red running shoes on a regular basis to participate in regional runs and races and has competed in six marathons to date. (You may see him out training with the family’s German shepherd mix, Vinny.)
Kuehnle has a few other personal goals he hopes to achieve in his new hometown. “I would love to become a member of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and to sing the National Anthem at a Tribe game.” (Despite his unfortunate allegiance to the Philadelphia Eagles football team, he is a longtime fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Indians.)
Kuehnle got his start as a professional singer at age 9, singing with the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Boy Choir in Philadelphia for $15 per week. He’s been singing ever since, with the Miami University Men’s Glee Club and Chamber Singers, in churches and temples, at sporting events, and most recently, with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.
Kuehnle is proud of his track record in helping both of his prior school districts increase their graduation rates by double digits, watching with joy as many of his students became the first in their families to attend college. But he was ready for a new challenge.
“What attracted me to Shaker was not only the academic rigor, but also the additional opportunities: the arts curriculum, the extra-curricular activities, all the things it takes to prepare a well-rounded individual,” he says. “I think it’s amazing that we offer both the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses of study here.”
Kuehnle is very familiar with the IB Diploma Programme, which was offered at Springfield High. “While I certainly want to see continued growth in that program here,” he says, “not everybody has to be an IB Diploma student to benefit from being part of an IB District. The goal of the IB experience is to emerge as someone with knowledge and compassion for your fellow humans and to be intelligently prepared to engage in the world.”
As for his educational philosophy, he says, “I’m a strong believer that all students can achieve highly. Some may need additional support or additional time, and that’s fine. As educators, it’s our job to provide that. Some students may have lofty college and career aspirations, and others may have different dreams. It’s our job to prepare them for success in high school and far beyond.”
As principal of Shaker Heights High School, Kuehnle is prepared to do a lot of listening.
“My mission this year is to build relationships,” he says. “I’m not coming in to make any seismic changes. I want to get to know people and learn what we do well and where we have opportunities for growth. You have to be willing to engage with all parties and to have honest conversations. As an educator, I’m an expert on teaching and learning, but as a parent, you’re the expert on your child.”
While he is responsive to e-mail and can be found on social media (follow him on Twitter @ShakerPrincipal), he prefers face-to-face communication for getting the whole story. He looks forward to those honest conversations, whether they happen at the high school, at community events, or in the aisles of the grocery store.
“I would like to tell members of the community the same thing I have said to my staff: Come on in, my door is open.”