In just three years at DRW College Prep, Irnessa Campbell, director of computer science, has become a stanchion of the school community. As a dedicated teacher, IT expert, and bold leader, Campbell has not only become a vital support for students and staff but has spearheaded the development of a robust computer science department at DRW, offering hands-on experience and essential learning for all DRW students.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, Campbell brings all the Southern twang and hospitality to the West Side of Chicago. Affectionately known as “Mama Campbell”, students flock to her with love, hugs, tears, smiles, care and concern. Staff also rely on Campbell for support (IT), advice, and comfort. With her Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems, Master of Science in Computer Science, and longtime experience as an educator, Campbell also brings all her expertise to the West Side.
Since 2021, Campbell has started several courses and programs for students: Computer Science Ambassadors (an afterschool enrichment club), coding, robotics, graphic design, video editing, animation, and computer gaming and design. She has even gone above and beyond to hire experts in their field to present. For example, DRW Trading, one of their external partners, came in last school year and presented lessons to the scholars about coding. Students were engaged and able to learn from people in the field—exposure they would not have had without Campbell.
Through the partnership with DRW Trading, students were able to take a field trip to learn about 3D printing and play with 3D-printed objects.
In addition to classes, Campbell has created a dedicated computer science pathway that DRW students can choose to help prepare them for careers in software and network design, maintenance, and management. The pathway plan includes bringing in tech industry partners who provide mentoring and tutoring to help students develop their technical and soft skills.
Campbell, though, doesn’t just create these awesome spaces for current DRW students, though—she also carves out time to get computer science experiences to incoming DRW freshmen (current 8th graders). A few times each school year, she and her team run a 4-hour computer science workshop on Saturdays with hands-on activities and lessons about design, gaming, and robotics for both incoming and current students. This 4-hour experience is a great way for incoming students to learn more about computer science and what it looks like to be a student at DRW College Prep. Last month, she held a workshop focused on graphic design. Students designed their own t-shirts, printed them out, and used a Cricut cutter to cut them out and heat-press them onto an actual t-shirt. During this workshop, students not only learned the principles of design but how to use Cricut software.
One of her next goals is to set up dual enrollment courses so that students can graduate with an associate’s degree in computer science.
DRW Principal Tina Ellis is a strong supporter of Campbell and the computer science department.
“CS at DRW empowers students with access to cutting-edge technology—which was previously beyond their reach. Now, they can harness these tools. This journey in computer science paves the way for them to explore essential career possibilities crucial for our future,” Ellis said.
Junior at DRW College Prep holding their end of year Lego project for robotics class.
Junior at DRW College Prep working on their end of year Lego project for robotics class.
Bringing computer science opportunities to DRW students and the West Side is critical to Campbell for this reason—and it’s why she chooses to work in a school rather than work at a big-name tech company.
“I do this so Black and Brown kids get to see someone who looks like them in computer science and get exposed to the many different levels of computer science and learn how they can fit into that space,” Campbell said.
Currently, folks of color make up a very small percentage of the tech workforce in the U.S. Due to this underrepresentation, many students don’t have the opportunity to see computer science professionals who look like them. That, coupled with a lack of educational exposure, has created a racial gap in students who pursue computer science for college and careers. Conversely, when BIPOC students are exposed to computer science studies, they retain their interest and also do better in other subjects, excel at problem-solving, and attend college at higher rates. (Diversity and Equity in Computer Science, Code.org)
Jamia H, a junior at DRW, has taken computer science courses for all three years that Campbell has been here. Now, she wants to pursue computer science in college.
“I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned basic computer skills and problem-solving skills. I think I want to do something around computer science in college because of the classes I’ve taken. Even though it frustrates me sometimes, I like it,” Jamia said.
For another junior, Lionel B, studying computer science helps him learn.
“I enjoy coding because it challenges me. It helps me learn new things easier and faster,” Lionel said.
Outside of just their experiences in CS classes, though, students deeply appreciate Campbell’s support and guidance.
“She is a model figure to me… She does more than teach me—she helps me inside and outside of school,” India M, a junior, said.