Straight A’s: Miramonte High Principal Adam Clark
Miramonte's principal answers Diablo’s questions about academic pressure, student alcohol abuse, and launching an iPad pilot program
Miramonte High School Principal Adam Clark
Adam Clark is starting his fourth year as principal at Miramonte High, which has for decades been known as one of the Bay Area's top public high schools. Nestled in affluent Orinda, Miramonte has produced its share of Ivy Leaguers, captains of industry and world class athletes. Occasionally—unfairly many would say—it winds up in news stories that portray its students as snobby rich kids. Clark, who taught elementary and middle school in Brentwood for a decade, shares what it takes to lead a top school that must serve students of all abilities and relies on parents to raise money through parcel taxes and community fundraising efforts.
How did you end up at Miramonte?
I’m originally from Berkeley. I got my teaching and administrative credential and master’s degree at St. Mary’s [in Moraga]. So, I was very familiar with the area and the schools.
Miramonte is known as a high-achieving school in an affluent community and maybe being a little bit snobby. Was there a cultural difference coming from Brentwood to here?
There’s a little bit more diversity in Brentwood. However, what I’ve found is that the students here, although many of them come from wealth or two professional parents in the home, you don’t really notice it on the outside. The majority of kids are driving hand-me-down cars, and they dress like regular high school students. You can’t really tell the difference, even though I know there are differences because I’ve been to homes. I don’t think there’s a snobbiness here. Our students work very hard and have high expectations. That student with the 4.3 GPA has worked for it. I’ve found that there is a very caring and worldly student body at Miramonte. They are interested in social issues and about the community.
We have a group on campus, Performers for Progress, who put on [cabaret-like] performances, adopt a charity and donate money to that nonprofit. Seniors a few years ago moved for the senior parking lot to be designated a car pool lot. We have a lot of boys who are Eagle Scouts.
What’s different about working with elementary, middle and high school students?
The similarities are greater than the differences. You have kids who are highly motivated, work hard and want to learn, and you have kids who are trying to figure things out. And then you have parents who want the best for their students. One thing I tell parents [of high school students]: This isn’t the time to step back. Your students are always wanting to push back. They will have the attitude, “I know it all. I’ve figured it all out.” As parents, this is the time we need to know their day-to-day activities, what their interests are, who their friends are.
Is there a lot of pressure on students to get top grades, and to take as many AP courses as possible?
It doesn’t necessarily come from the school. At Miramonte, you can take the most advanced classes or get the specific remediation you need. We have students who attend junior college; we have a few kids who go off to the military. The pressure really does come from universities, from private college counselors who are encouraging them to take that extra AP class.
We’re a small school. We’re in a close-knit community. A lot of our students tend to look for that same feeling in a college: in private schools up north in Washington or Oregon or to small liberal arts schools in Southern California.
What is your biggest accomplishment?
There’s always been a culture of alcohol abuse. We’ve spent a lot of time addressing it within our sports programs. When I came in, I started holding meetings with all our varsity captains at the start of every season. I explained to them the definition of a leader, what it means to be a captain, the influence they have on others. If they’re at a party and encouraging younger team members to drink then that’s a culture they’re building. I try to instill in them the need to take younger players under their wing and mentor them. I can name many of our athletes who have developed that quality of leadership, who are now true leaders on campus.
What keeps you up at night?
I’m always worrying. This is a 24-hour-a–day job. I receive emails around the clock and I try to respond to them. I worry about our students. I worry about this facility. I worry about the budgets.
Speaking of the budget, isn’t that largely outside your control?
A lot of it depends on the state. However, in the Acalanes school district, we receive close to 25 percent of our funding from the community—from parcel taxes and bonds and our parent organizations. I feel I am a part of that because I represent this school, and I want to make sure I’m communicating how we have a high-performing, viable, accessible school right here in this community.
If you had a magic wand to fix anything in today’s educaton system what would it be?
I think standards and benchmarks are a great thing, but I would change how a school is configured. For example, we’re broken up into 47-minute periods. Sometimes, you may need a 90-minute block. Or maybe you’re doing a project and you need all day. Maybe you don’t need to be in a classroom every day. If I had a magic wand, I’d look to see if there are more effective ways to meet the needs of students: project-based learning where they apply all the different disciplines to working with a challenge. That wouldn’t necessarily be all of their education, but it could be a part of it, maybe a quarter or a semester, where they’re working on real-life situations. Sometimes we’re so driven by state standards, or college admissions, that we don’t get to be creative.
In terms of innovations, I read that Miramonte would be giving some students iPads this year.
We’re doing a pilot study on using iPads in classrooms. We’re using [bond measure] funds to purchase enough iPads to supply four of our classes: two freshman English classes and two world history classes. There are a great number of educational aps and books that can be downloaded. We’ll see how students use this technology, if it’s more engaging, or if it turns out to be more work for them. We want to do the research before we commit to buying iPads for every student.
Are there other unique programs at Miramonte?
We’ve had the WISE program for several years [Wise Individualized Senior Experience allows seniors to design their own course of study]. Students can sign up for it in the second half of their senior year English class. We’ve had kids volunteer at fire departments or at technology companies, or go and work at a nonprofit. They have mentors on campus and keep a daily journal. At the end of the year, they present their project to members of the faculty, the community and friends and family.
Our science department also takes students on a senior trip to the Olympic Park Institute [in Washington’s Olympic National Park]. Students learn about the environment and watersheds, and they go on an overnight backpacking trip.
Any final thoughts?
It’s been important for me to form relationships with students. It’s important for them to know that they have an administrator who knows them all by name, who supports their extracurricular activities but keeps the focus on the work in the classroom.
Straight A’s is part of a new series of occasional education blogs Diablo. Check back for more.