By Karen Billing
Carmel Valley Middle School is kicking off the school year with in-demand new computer programming classes, a new media center and a new principal in charge of it all —Cara Dolnik. While she is a new face on campus, she is not new to the community, moving over to the middle school from Torrey Pines High School.
“I was told my personality fits middle school,” said Dolnik, who takes it as a compliment.
Dolnik said she likes to have fun and has an enthusiasm for what she does. She’s been described by students as “kinda goofy” but she is still professional and can be stern. Even when students are being disciplined, they tend not to get mad at her because they are often the same students who will turn to her for help — Dolnik said she places an emphasis on building a relationship with her students and helping them make better choices.
“(Middle school) is really fun. The seventh and eighth graders were here for orientation on Wednesday and just the energy and the excitement they have, they’re still really excited to come to school,” Dolnik said. “I look forward to seeing them in the classroom and seeing our amazing teachers harness that energy for good.”
This is Dolnik’s 17th year in education and her ninth year in administration. She started as a junior high math teacher.
“I decided when I was 16 years old that I wanted to be a teacher, and I never changed my mind,” said Dolnik, a Louisiana native who launched her teaching career in Oceanside.
She moved to Julian High School in 2005 and worked part-time as a teacher and part-time as an administrative dean for two years. She then became assistant principal for two years and principal at Julian High for another two years.
In her six years at Julian, she worked under Superintendent James Peabody, who would finish his 41-year career in education serving as the superintendent of the Del Mar Union School District for two years before retiring in 2012. Dolnik still keeps in touch with Peabody and aims to mirror his leadership style.
She said she often thinks, “What would Jim do?”
From Julian, Dolnik spent the past three years as an assistant principal at Torrey Pines High School. When two middle school principal positions opened up in the district this year at Diegueno and Carmel Valley, applicants were considered for both positions, but she had her fingers crossed she would get to stay in Carmel Valley.
“Being at Torrey Pines, I became really familiar with the community and the type of students we have here,” Dolnik said. “When I got to Torrey Pines, I was very impressed with how responsible and polite the students are and how ambitious they are at a young age.”
Dolnik said she was also extremely impressed with the level of commitment and involvement of the district parents.
Carmel Valley Middle is expected to have as many as 1,550 students this fall, although official numbers won’t be known until the first week of school (the first day of school is Aug. 26). Running the biggest middle school in the district is definitely a challenge; Dolnik helps manage a campus that is at capacity by offering scheduling options such as zero period and independent study physical education.
“We are looking forward to Middle School #5 opening,” Dolnik said of the new district middle school now under construction in Pacific Highlands Ranch. That school is set to open in 2015 and will lighten the load at Carmel Valley Middle School — by the first year CVMS’ enrollment is projected to shrink to about 1,250 students and by year two the campus will be down to 1,000 students.
Another challenge this year is the official transition to the Common Core State Standards.
The district staff went through professional development last year as they prepared to implement the new standards, and Dolnik said her job is to support teachers and students in the transition.
“The teachers are excited about it because of what they will be able to do with the kids. Not that there isn’t anxiety as we get into it this first year, but the Common Core really highlights how the middle school child learns,” Dolnik said of the collaboration, the communication and the middle school emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving. “A lot of the things, teachers in middle school do already.”
As one of the few administrators who had a math background, Dolnik was very involved as they developed the math program, which is the Common Core area that poses the biggest overall changes to learning and instruction. Dolnik said she plans to stay involved in this transitional year, offering the district her unique perspective as an administrator and math teacher.
There are occasions when she admittedly misses being at the head of a classroom and makes a point of blocking out time in her schedule to make the rounds on campus.
“I do a lot of walkthroughs. I try to be in the classrooms as much as possible … being around the kids helps me focus,” said Dolnik.
After a lonely July in her office waiting for everyone to come back to school, she is ready to start the new school year.
“I’m anxious. I get nervous before the first day of school just like the students do — I can’t sleep and I get to the school at 6:30 a.m.,” Dolnik said. “I’m ready for everyone to be here.”