Principal Ronald Richardson at the "twin station" at the Claremont science fair
Principal Ronald Richardson stood near the "twins station" at Claremont Middle School's science fair recently encouraging two students to describe the biology of twins.
Parents and kids squeezed around the table to greet him amid an elbow-to-elbow crowd meandering around student exhibits on photosynthesis, hovercrafts and the like.
As the principal chatted, a man with his mirror image and the same last name made his way to the twins station while congratulating students with high-fives and hugging parents. This was Ronald Richardson's identical twin brother and co-principal Reginald.
The scene at Claremont that night was remarkable in two ways.
One is that identical twin adult brothers lead the school as co-principals. Second is that these principals seem to have turned around Claremont from a school of lackluster student performance and little parent involvement to one where students are excited to learn, parents engaged and teachers seem really glad to be there.
"The Richardsons have had a super-profound effect on the school," parent Christopher Frost said. "All the parents I know are talking about math clubs, running teams, field trips, science projects and novel writing in the library - not discipline. People are saying 'How can I help?' instead of making a list of things they'd like to see change."
Suddenly, Claremont is a school people want their kids to go to - and kids want to attend.
Having identical twins as principals is only a small part of the attraction - although it has attracted some national attention. The Richardson twins were interviewed by Ira Glass of "This American Life" for a radio segment that aired Sunday on KALW and will air in February on KQED. But the reason locals want to come to Claremont - want to enroll their children in the north Oakland school as they choose among the Oakland Unified School District middle schools - is because of the difference the Richardsons have made in the short five months since they've been here.
"Last year, whenever anyone spoke about Claremont, there was always a little defensiveness - a feeling like you had to say 'I know it has problems, but it is getting better.' This year that hesitation is gone," Paul Kagiwada, parent of a seventh grader, said. "I personally feel great pride in saying that my son is a student at Claremont."
The 36-year-old twin Richardson brothers are Oakland natives, sons of a former OUSD school teacher Jacqueline Elizabeth Rice. Inspired by their mother to follow her footsteps in becoming teachers and then deciding to pursue careers as school administrators, the Richardson brothers not only share her ideals, they share each others - uncannily so.
"We think alike. We share the same teaching philosophies. We can often finish each other's sentences," Ronald Richardson explained.
The brothers went to the same college and graduate school, California State University East Bay and University of California, Berkeley, then both taught elementary school in Richmond and served as assistant principals at neighboring Richmond high schools.
They call becoming co-principals at Claremont Middle in Oakland their "dream job" where they are setting out to make a difference in inspiring all children to learn and in closing the achievement gap.
"We want to give our children a humanist view of learning," said Ronald Richardson in a long interview in his office where a framed collection of newspaper headlines about the election of Barack Obama as president is prominently displayed. "We have a diverse student population. We want our kids to feel comfortable in their skin and to know they all come from greatness."
"Our approach to the achievement gap is we see it as an opportunity, an opportunity to really reform education," by innovating and building community, Ron Richardson said.
As a school in the trendy Rockridge section of town, but with students from all over the city, Claremont children come from wealthy families as well as from low income families. The school also is a melting pot of ethnicities and religious practices.
"Student performance is not about ethnicity. It is about experiences, their life experiences before they started school such as whether they went to preschool, and their home life outside of school, in access to books, summer camp," Ron Richardson said. "We have students here who get to travel the world with their parents in summer and students who have never seen the Bay Bridge."
The Richardson principals have replaced punitive discipline with restorative justice practices at the school. In restorative justice, kids talk about the damages done when one person misbehaves or two people get in a fight and what the offender needs to do to repair relationships and fix a situation. Suspensions used to be a regular thing at Claremont. This year, the number of suspensions has dropped to 29, about one quarter of last year's when 115 were handed out by this time of the year. The Richardsons say all the teachers and administrators are now clear on what infractions still merit suspensions and which do not.
Ron Richardson said that listening often can replace punishment.
"When a student arrives at school, we don't necessarily know what they've been through" since they left school the previous day, he said. "They may not have eaten dinner the night before or they may have seen mom or dad in an upsetting situation. This morning, they may have had to walk their siblings to school before coming to school themselves."
So before a student is called out for being late, Ron Richardson added, the two principals make a point of welcoming them to school and learning about why they were late before asking the student how they can make changes to be on time in the future.
Under the philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child and a community to educate her, the Richardsons are trying to lift the educational opportunities of some students while not hurting the opportunities of others. Parents are invited to be part of "the strategy team" for the school with the two principals and teachers to discuss such things as whether to use discretionary funds on reading specialists or math intervention, for instance, or what enrichment programs to develop.
Since the Richardsons took up their post in August, not enough time has passed to measure changes in student achievement on standardized tests, since those tests are given yearly in May. However, the principals both said they believe student achievement is rising given reports from teachers.
Teacher enthusiasm under their new principals could have something to do with it.
"The Richardsons ooze care and love through out the hallways," science teacher Ian Lesser said. "They make staff, students and parents feel important and included in the Claremont family and they treat everyone with kindness and respect."
While the Richardsons may be great role models for all the kids at Claremont, twins at the school - and there are six sets of twins there - have it especially good.
"They show us how to be brothers," said Jeremiah Vaughn, an eighth grader and twin to Nehemiah Vaughn.
Claremont went through four principals last year, which left everyone demoralized and in many instances in chaos, parents and teachers say.
Parent-Teacher-Association President Amy Vaughan said the debilitating turnover has been replaced with strong community and enthusiasm for learning.
"They've got everyone participating and doing their best," she said. "They are such wonderful men and wonderful role models."