January 25, 2019 Blog

At Camras Elementary, no problem is too big to solve

When Marvin Camras Elementary opened nine years ago in Chicago’s Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, local parents were adamant: They didn’t want another neighborhood school. They wanted a school that specialized in an area that would help their kids tackle 21st-century problems, like engineering.

That charge fell to Clariza Dominicci, then Camras’ assistant principal, and the rest of the school leadership team. They decided to design a curriculum that used the core tenets of engineering as its backbone.

It took some time (three years, to be exact) but Dominicci, who has been the school’s principal since 2013, has integrated engineering in a truly inspiring way.

“For us, engineering is really a mindset,” Dominicci explained. “We didn’t want it just as a class, but embedded in everything we do.” Her teachers use it as a way to give students a global perspective. Math and reading are essential to their success. But, Dominicci warned, when many of a school’s students live in poverty, teachers, principals and parents often “forget that we need all this other experience to be able to talk about and interact with the world. Engineering affords our students that opportunity.”

At Camras, students are pushed to be creative problem-solvers. They are taught to define their challenges in a clear, logical way, which helps them decide the best course of action. Dominicci explained their thought process: First, students identify their constraints. Then they home in on the real problem. And finally, they ask themselves, “How might we — given what we have — be able to figure out solutions for that?”

An essential part of this equation is recognizing the limits of any solution in a public school, where resources are finite. It’s something Dominicci herself knows well. She used the same principles she encourages in her students to build — and then oversee — a school on a tight budget without an existing model. There’s no handbook on how to teach engineering to pre-kindergarteners.

As a former teacher, Dominicci is committed to modeling those engineering tenets for her school. When she noticed that her students, while well behaved, weren’t really engaged in the classroom, she outlined a fix following the students’ own process:

First, she identified her main constraint: There’s only so much time in a school day — and a lot of material to get through.

Then, she defined the problem: Students weren’t connecting enough with the coursework to take full “ownership of their learning.”

Next, she rallied her teachers around a solution: Focus on the students “holistically.” Social and emotional learning isn’t part of Camras’ curriculum, but teachers are encouraged to check-in with students throughout the day. Once staff members made a real effort to consider kids’ personal needs, students’ on-track measures — indicators that they’re high-school ready — began to climb.

Dominicci is already working to tackle her next challenge: Finding ways to engage the school’s boys at the same level as its girls. “What we see by eighth grade is that our girls outperform them (on all standardized test measures) by 50 percent,” Dominicci explained. “And so our big question is how might we engage them so that they might perform at a higher rate.”

She hinted at her strategy; the eighth-grade boys will get extra one-on-one adult attention throughout the school year. When an adult takes the time to get to know a student, they find out what makes that kid tick.

That approach, like most things at Camras, shows the value of the engineering mindset: No problem is too big, too entrenched to solve. And when students learn that, they can accomplish anything.