An Unorthodox Strategy Closes Academic Gaps
- Expertise: Closing Gaps
- Position: Superintendent
- District: Baldwin Union Free School District, Baldwin, N.Y.
Shari L. Camhi isn’t very good at taking traditional tests. She knows many of her students have similar reactions to standardized exams. Over the past six years, she’s been determined to provide her students in the Baldwin Union Free School District in New York with an unorthodox educational experience intended to give them structure, flexibility, and the chance to explore beyond the bubble.
The end result has also improved equity on those admittedly imperfect test measures, with the district’s black and Latino students now besting their peers in Nassau County and in New York state as a whole, sometimes by double-digit percentage points.
Camhi took a complicated path in education that involved teaching often-neglected children deemed violent and disruptive in New York City and then working in the Israeli higher education system and at a software company, all before embarking on nearly 20 years in public school administration.
Since 2014, when she became Baldwin’s superintendent, Camhi has put a huge amount of manpower, energy, and community partnerships into building multifaceted academies—focused on areas like business, law, and health sciences—that take students beyond classroom, school, and district boundaries and into higher education and multinational corporations, as well as competitions and exhibitions.
Lessons from the Leader
- Be courageous and fearless: Great ideas are not always easy to implement. You might get resistance because sometimes fear of change gets in the way. Be courageous in your thinking, collaborate and communicate with others to bring them closer to the reason and thinking behind the innovation.
- Inspire innovative thinking: Being innovative and creating new ideas are hard. Develop a safe space and opportunities to inspire innovative thinking. Cultivate and nurture creativity, and encourage thoughtful, and intentional practices.
- Learning is paramount : Our schools need to cultivate love of learning. Learning happens in many places outside of school buildings. Make sure to foster those opportunities for our youngest citizens.
They’re designed to immerse students in those fields. But what makes these academy programs stand out from many others like them is that there is no bar to entry. They’re not exclusive or based on a student-tracking system. Any student is free to participate, or not, in the academies. And traditional academic courses are a part of the academies’ structure. There are no GPA minimums. There’s no application students have to fill out. What they have is a green light from the district.
“If you want to be in an academy, you can be in an academy. It’s really based on student interest,” Camhi said, stressing that some students simply don’t have well-developed interests yet but might want to try something new. “Why would you keep them out of the courses that might motivate them to do well?”
This philosophy goes back to Camhi’s earliest experiences about what tests can and cannot do and the double-edged nature of tests: They represent prominent feedback students get about their performance, but that feedback rarely helps them develop understanding and interests.
“How many other kids are there out there that can thrive and be exceptional if we give them other ways of engaging in learning and assessing that learning?” Camhi said. “All too often, schools have programs, and you fit the students inside the programs that you have. When you get to high school, the world should explode in front of you. The opportunities should just abound.”
Camhi wasn’t just implementing her own vision for how to engage students. She was responding to the desire of Baldwin’s community on the outskirts of New York City. Roughly 77 percent of the district’s students are black or Hispanic. The largely middle-class community, she said, celebrates its diversity and expects its children will have experiences and opportunities that outpace what adults had a generation before.
One tangible result of this approach? In the class of 2019, 94 percent of students matriculated to colleges and universities. Lower down in grades 3-8, Baldwin’s black and Hispanic students exceed their peers on the state exams by notable margins; black students, for example, beat the New York state average from their peers by 13 points in English/language arts exams and by 19 percentage points in math.
“We need to live in a current system, and it needs to be excellent. But we need to be building our school system for the future,” she said. “Do we need to spend all of our time inside the school building?”
Camhi was well into her professional education career before she realized others approached tests and school the same way she did. In fact, it took another educator—in her case a graduate school professor—for her to grasp the significance of her mindset.
“He was the first person to ever tell me that I was smart. It is certainly not how I profiled myself,” Camhi said. “He made me realize that the way that I think and the way that I learn is just not the mainstream of the way schools teach and the way we assess a student’s ability.”
Baldwin’s work to connect students with career experiences goes back roughly two decades. Indeed, Camhi says she didn’t take over the Baldwin district with a “grand scheme” already in mind and ready to bolt into place. Instead, she took the district’s informal job “shadow days”—which got students outside school walls and into local industries—and went from there.
“We kind of backed into this. This wasn’t a grand plan. There was no strategic plan written around it,” she said. “We started something that was working and we built on it, a little over time, and it was working, and so we built on it even more.”
The academies, six in total, are anchored at Baldwin Senior High School but, importantly, are also made available to students starting in the 8th grade. In addition to the three aforementioned subject areas, there are academies for those interested in a potential teaching career, new media, and the STEM fields.
Each academy has three pillars. There are more traditional academic courses, including college-level coursework in some cases. Then there are internships and periods during which students can shadow professionals like doctors during the course of their work days. Finally, there are opportunities for students to demonstrate their grasp of the field through competitions and capstones. Students in the global business academy, for example, conceive, build, and pitch a new product.
The district has a natural advantage of being close to a world hub for capital and corporate activity, and Camhi has seized the opportunities to forge partnerships. The academies’ partners include private corporations like FedEx and Northrop Grumman. Half of Baldwin Senior High School’s students are in academies, which rely on electives to create the three-pillar experience outside the required academic courses; Camhi expects that next year the figure will rise to 60 percent.
Ultimately, Camhi said, the academies want to support the idea of “students as producers.” That means demonstrating what they have learned at the competitions and elsewhere and emerging confident that they continue to do so as adults. “There are places that are very happy doing what they’ve always done,” said Camhi, 58. “I was lucky enough to find myself in Baldwin, in a community that believes it’s time to do things differently.”
Early in her tenure, disagreements flared up with less-than-receptive parents, she acknowledged, as did spats about budget proposals. But she won people over.
“You need to have a board that is supportive of the vision. And you need to have a board that’s willing to take a chance,” said Mary Jo O’Hagan, a Baldwin school board member who’s backed Camhi’s work. “You don’t know if an initiative is going to be successful. And you don’t know how long it’s going to take.”
A 15-minute drive away from the Baldwin Union district headquarters is Molloy College, where 9 of 10 students are in preprofessional programs, according to the college’s president, Drew Bogner. That’s made the college, where 2,200 students study nursing, a natural partner for the district’s health-sciences academy. But there’s more to it than that.
“Embedding education in the practical is very important. And connecting the experiences that you have in schools to the world that you will be occupying after you graduate helps to motivate and excite students in ways that help them to achieve at even higher levels,” Bogner said.
In the last few years, Molloy faculty have worked closely with Baldwin to help develop their academies in new-media studies and teacher education. Bogner also singled out the teacher education academy for praise because part of the district’s goal is attracting a more diverse group of potential teachers at a younger age.
“Shari’s passionate about education, the transformational nature of education, and what we can achieve, and not particularly patient with those traditions that might not be effective in our field,” Bogner said, taking Camhi’s side when it comes to the relative value of standardized tests. “The main benefit that I see in what Shari is doing is to provide a model that can be duplicated in other K-12 systems.”
We need to be building our school system for the future. Do we need to spend all of our time in the school building?
With two children in academy programs, Melissa Watts, a Baldwin parent who went to the school system herself, says she’s seen the benefits of Camhi’s approach up close, even though she thinks some of the academy-sponsored opportunities have a higher profile than others.
Nevertheless, Watts has noticed that Camhi consults with students regularly to help them seek out new opportunities. “The kids really do get an eye-opener that other kids in other towns don’t,” she said.
Like students in Baldwin’s academies, Camhi’s other signature initiative goes well beyond her district’s boundaries.
Building on a nationwide initiative focusing on life after high school known as “Redefining Ready,” Camhi has proposed (in presentations to superintendents and others) changing the Empire State’s graduation requirements to dramatically increase the number of options students have for obtaining a diploma without passing the state’s Regents exams.
While the state already offers multiple pathways to graduation, Camhi has outlined four diploma options that would allow students to demonstrate achievement across a total of roughly 25 academic, career, and other indicators that are much broader than currently permitted. They range from community service, organized extracurricular activities, and industry training certificates, to attendance rates and minimum test scores.
The success or failure of those ideas remains to be seen. But even further down the road, if she finds herself in a hospital needing serious care, she already knows what she wants.
“I’m going to hope that I open up my eyes and see a Baldwin graduate leaning over me and trying to help me,” she said.