Monday Q&A: Retired teacher to trustees: Forget politics; you’re there for the kids

Eileen Hamilton, retired teacher and former Turlock Unified School Board member.
Eileen Hamilton, retired teacher and former Turlock Unified School Board member. Turlock Unified School District

Eileen Hamilton knows the educational system inside and out, from start to finish, from lowest paid to being in charge. The Modesto Bee caught up with her as she left her 10-year post on the Turlock Unified School District Board to get her take on these tumultuous years in education.

Hamilton, 72, started as a parent volunteer, helping out in her children’s classrooms. As her daughters got older, she became an instructional aide, then went back to school and got her teaching credential. For 13 years, she taught pregnant teens and young mothers in a special program of the Turlock district.

After retirement, she ran for the Turlock school board in 2005, stepping down a decade later this December. She stays busy, volunteering on the Creative Alternatives board and on the budget advisory committee of California State University, Stanislaus.

Teaching is all in the family for the Hamiltons. Her late husband, Hobart, taught at Stan State for 34 years. Now daughter Laurissa Hamilton teaches biology at the university. Elise Domico is a counselor at Denair Middle School.

Our questions:

Q: How are things changing at schools with Common Core?

A: There’s more focus on collaboration. Wednesday afternoon teacher meetings are getting more specific.

Kids all learn so differently. If I had my way, we’d travel every day, or we’d do things. With the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs the kids are literally creating things and putting them together.

At Earl Elementary School, there’s a program where kids are putting together these machines using Legos. It was fascinating! I went in there the other day and they were making different little creations. One made a car. There was a lion, and they moved.

These kids with their computers, it’ll just blow your mind away with what they can do with them.

Q: How is the new funding system changing things?

A: One of the things is, we’ve been doing a lot of surveys with the parents. We’ve sent out two paper forms and they’re online, asking what they want to have done, asking the needs. We also reached out to principals and classroom teachers to see what is needed.

From year one, the thing that we’ve learned is we need more services for English learners, and then we need to increase opportunities for the parents.

​We added a day to sixth-grade camp. They were only gone two nights; now all the children in Turlock get three nights. I hope they can increase it to a full week again. The kids learn so much from that.​

I think part of the problem is, the system is so new. We’ve had lots of meetings to find priorities right at this time. By the end of this school year, you should be seeing more in the way of innovative things being done.

These kids with their computers, it’ll just blow your mind away with what they can do with them.

Eileen Hamilton, retired teacher and former school board member

Q: Were there things you learned as a school board member that changed how you viewed things as a teacher? ​

A: No. The only thing I would say is that having been a teacher I was a little more aware of the rules and the way things are run at a school. ​ ​​

Q: Did you run for the board with goals in mind, and do you feel you accomplished them?​

A: My main goal was making sure our students got a good education, and I am happy I think we did that. There was a point where they were talking about eliminating outdoor education and I really opposed that, and cutting music. We never gave up any part of that. Music is so important in growing up.

​Some school board members before me saw the writing on the wall and increased reserves, so when we had that budget crunch, we already had more money than we normally would.

I was really there just wanting to be there to support students. My own children, when they went on to college, they never had any problems with the academics. They had excellent teachers ​here.

Q: What advice would you give the newly appointed trustees as they take their seats?

A: ​One of the things I am going to say to them is they need to be sure to ask questions and get their questions answered. They need to be willing to listen to each other on the board and discuss and come to the best decision for students, because that’s why we’re there.

​One of my concerns is we’ve gone to district areas within the city. It’s becoming more elitist. Nobody was interested in one area, so board members were going out and finding people. So now the board is hand-selecting their own candidates.

​When I was campaigning, we were asked for our political affiliation. A school board member should not be any political affiliation. We’re there for the students.

We have to do well by them. After all, they’re going to be taking care of us in our old age. Well, it’s true.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin