SCHOOLS | July 30, 2020
Note: Photos for this story were taken on March 5, 2020. Its posting was rescheduled from the past school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Principal Clariza Dominicci says a single question guides her thinking at Marvin Camras Elementary: how do we lead our community to prosper?
Her first glimpse of the power of education to uplift and inspire took place nearly two decades ago as a dual language teacher in her very first CPS classroom. She was initially intent on working toward a career in psychology, but the sense of joy she felt helping her second-grade students take ownership of their learning was enough to make her reconsider.
Now, having served as the principal of Camras for eight years, she has yet to waver from this student-centered perspective.
“At Camras, we embrace having the students mold our approach to serving them,” said Principal Dominicci. “It’s not about ourselves. It’s about focusing on how we can meet each student’s needs.”
While she knows that being community-centered starts with being student-centered, she also looks for other ways to maximize her school’s impact on the surrounding Belmont Cragin neighborhood. One of the most successful examples has been the school’s parent mentor program.
Principal Dominicci sees this program as a pipeline to help parents develop their own skillsets while working together to help Camras grow. Parents first have the opportunity to take on the role of recess coach at the school. After getting to know the student body in that capacity, they have the opportunity to be hired as a teacher assistant or special education classroom assistant. From there, Camras leverages the district’s higher education partnerships to help them become teachers.
Parent mentor coordinator Flor Cubias, who works as a third-grade teacher assistant, notes that her job as a parent mentor is not just a list of responsibilities. In addition to reading to students and helping them with math in the classroom, she is responsible for planning school-wide events and advocating for some of the resources that the school needs.
As the parent of a Pre-K student at Camras, Ms. Cubias also sees her role as parent mentor as an asset for supporting her daughter as she gets older.
“One of the most beneficial parts of our parent mentor program is that it gives our parents a better sense of how school runs,” said Principal Dominicci. “A lot of their role is actively identifying what the school needs and taking ownership of finding a solution.”
The parent mentor program is just a small piece of a culture of collaboration and problem solving that Principal Dominicci has worked hard to cultivate since Camras opened in 2010. Third-grade teacher Diana Salgado says she is unafraid to give her students advanced material because she expects them to work together in groups to develop solutions.
“Since many of my students are bilingual, schoolwork can be hard when you haven’t fully mastered English yet,” said Ms. Salgado. “That’s why my students rely on each other a lot and I prioritize teaching them how to work together to solve problems in ways that make sense for everyone.”
Camras is one of the only CPS schools with a curriculum built around engineering. Rising fourth-grade students Karla P. and David T. enjoy the hands-on and visual experiences that come with this educational model, such as building a bridge that held 100 pennies or learning about clouds by watching a skydiver descend toward the ground. Having engineering processes built into every part of their school day has not only pushed them to be better problem solvers, it has also taught them about perseverance.
“If you don’t know the answer, you can work together sharing ideas. Sometimes you’ll get it right and sometimes you’ll get it wrong,” said Karla. “Even if you don’t have any ideas, you can think really hard and read the problem again carefully to figure out what strategies you can use.”
Principal Dominicci hopes that every classroom at Camras evokes the same sense of joy that she felt in her first teaching role 20 years ago. She wants students to develop a love of learning and exploring while also figuring out how to keep their ideas flowing even after things don’t go according to plan.
At Camras, everyone is a problem solver. Students are problem solvers. Teachers are problem solvers. Parent mentors are problem solvers. And, as it turns out, problem solving might just be the answer to a very important question: how do we lead our community to prosper?