Profile: Shari Camhi
An Imaginative Thinker for Creative Schools
BY JOETTA SACK-MIN/School Administrator, November 2020
WALK INTO an “Innovatrium” in the Baldwin Union Free School District on New York’s Long Island, and it won’t look like any other classroom in the school. In this setting, it may be hard to locate the teacher or identify the front of the classroom as the teacher’s desk isn’t distinguishable and the workspaces are collaborative.
Innovatrium is a word coined by Shari Camhi, Baldwin’s creative superintendent, and her team when they reworked curricula and redesigned classrooms to better reflect learning spaces where students could be innovative and demonstrate their knowledge. The district’s mission statement encompasses the phrase “innovative, inclusive and involved,” and Camhi uses those qualities to guide decisions when reconfiguring learning space in each school building.
Her work is inspired by both her doctoral work on constructivist learning environments, which support project-based curricula, and her own children’s educational experiences. She approaches design with a single question: “If our students represent the future, who do we want them to be?” And she answers it this way: “We want smart people who know how to solve a problem, work around it and propose solutions.”
This was part of a larger plan for the district of 4,600 students, when Camhi became superintendent in 2014. She was inspired by elements of AASA’s Redefining Ready!, a system of college and career ready indicators. The whole effort represented a step back from standardized tests, including New York’s Regents exams and the Common Core. Camhi recognizes the importance of accountability but believes not all students can be assessed in the same way.
The superintendent also started STEAM classes in the elementary grades in each school’s Innovatrium. High school career academies offer an expanded STEAM lineup that includes robotics, coding, video production and journalism. Her accomplishments have earned recognition from AASA, the New York State Education Department and Education Week.
Of course, Baldwin closed schools after the COVID-19 outbreak, and Camhi, whose graduate work focused on educational technology, has taken on the challenge by planning for multiple scenarios. She admits she would like students to be back in school full-time because they benefit from socialization and hands-on learning, but she recognizes the realities.
“Learning has to be creative and fun and exciting and engaging — you either capture the kids or lose them,” she says. “But learning doesn’t happen in isolation — memorization happens. Making meaningful learning happens with people.”
Camhi says she’s enjoyed a supportive relationship with the community and school board. Mary Jo O’Hagan, the board’s vice president, praised the superintendent’s creativity in finding practical solutions as well as her extraordinary speaking and writing abilities, which she says have helped the district weather COVID-19. At the height of the pandemic in the New York City area, the district offered graduating seniors the option of a virtual graduation or a drive-through ceremony, where Camhi and other administrators handed out diplomas. The effective communication, O’Hagan says, helped ease frustrations.
Throughout the public health crisis, Camhi has sent regular e-mails that were cheerful, empathetic and filled with information. “As a result,” O’Hagan says, “we have a very positive response from the community, not just about her but the school district.”
JOETTA SACK-MIN is a freelance education writer in Falls Church, Va.
BIO STATS: SHARI CAMHI
superintendent, Baldwin, N.Y.
assistant superintendent, Glen Cove, N.Y.
GREATEST INFLUENCE ON CAREER:
The experiences my children had in school absolutely affected my beliefs as an educator. Their need to be involved in the curriculum and their learning was paramount to their success. I learned this by watching them.
BEST PROFESSIONAL DAY:
When I received the call from Education Week
that I was being recognized as a Leader to Learn From — an amazing experience to be recognized by a neutral organization for the work I am doing on behalf of children.
BOOK AT BEDSIDE: Talking to Strangers
by Malcolm Gladwell and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
by Bryan Stevenson
Hitting “reply all” and then “send” when it was intended for only one person.
WHY I’M AN AASA MEMBER:
Being an AASA member broadens my base of knowledge and allows me to understand perspectives from different types of communities. It has been an amazing experience as a Governing Board member as well.