A familiar face in the Athens City Schools community will soon be enjoying the retired life after 36-year career in field of education.
Dr. Chris Hamilton, who has worked for the system since 1997, will soon trade her day-to-day duties as spokesperson and foundation board executive director for gardening gloves and a fishing pole.
She's modest about her accomplishments, but she played a pivotal role in the advancement of technology throughout the schools at every grade level. While serving as coordinator of technology resources, Hamilton led the Power Up initiative that put Macbooks in the hands of students.
“I really have no individual accomplishments,” she said. “If I have accomplished anything during these 36 years, it is due to the efforts of many great people working together to benefit the lives of students and teachers.”
Superintendent Dr. Trey Holladay, who came to Athens City Schools in 2013, said he's had great employees and outstanding employees. He places Hamilton in the latter camp.
“She's very thorough, extremely smart and she's been my right hand on a lot of things,” he said. “She did all the leg work on Power Up. I just had to pull the trigger.”
Hamilton is a Florence native, but she and her husband Barry Hamilton — former chief financial officer for Athens City Schools — have lived in Athens for 37 years. The couple has one daughter, Bess Hamilton.
“I still love the Florence community, but Athens is my home,” she said.
She and Barry both attended Coffee High School and she followed him to Troy University. They married before Chris completed her bachelor's degree. She would ultimately earn her bachelor's in business administration from Athens State University.
In 1984, Chris landed a job as a marketing assistant at Calhoun Community College, which opened the door to her long career in education. She credits “God's hand at work,” because neither of her parents attended college. Her dad worked for Reynolds Aluminum, and her mom was a stay-at-home parent.
“They were both very smart people, but could provide little direction for me in pursuing a career,” she said. “Their only advice was, 'Get a good education because that will change your life.'”
Barry had several family members who worked in the education field, who Chris described as role models.
Despite working full-time at Calhoun, she took night classes at the University of North Alabama in an effort to earn her master's of business administration.
“This was challenging in the mid-eighties since there were very few women in that program,” she said. “I then attended the University of Alabama on evenings and weekends to complete my doctorate.”
Arrival at ACS
Hamilton held several positions within the instructional area of Calhoun, and she enjoyed her time there.
“I loved my time there and learned so much from some great leaders and mentors,” she said.
In 1997, she accepted an offer from then-Superintendent Joe Anglin to join Athens City Schools and work with teachers to implement technology in the classroom. After a few months, she replaced Guy McClure, who retired from the position of director of technology.
“I learned pretty quickly about technology planning, infrastructure and maintenance,” she said. “It has been a joy to watch the impact of technology throughout the school system during my tenure here. A lot has certainly changed.”
At that time, Hamilton said most of the school system's staff members were locals, the poverty was not as widespread among the student population and technology was in its infancy.
“Teachers were just beginning to use computers for their personal productivity,” she said. “Most did not know how to conduct internet searches or what to do with the information once they found it.”
One or two teachers had a couple of old computers in their classrooms for students to play games on. She said internet connectivity was terrible as was connectivity between the schools.
“We had just begun using a student management database where records were stored electronically. Each school did have a computer lab that ran one instructional software program,” she said. “At this time, very little money was set aside for technology, but that changed very rapidly as technology continued to emerge.”
Technology changed rapidly in the 2000s as dial-up modems gave way to ethernet and fiber optics. Computers, including laptops, also became more affordable.
Shortly after Holladay became superintendent, Athens City Schools fully implemented Power Up. The system ultimately decided to pursue a lease-purchase option that cost more than $2 million over a four-year period. The project was funded through a one-cent sales tax approved by the city of Athens.
A time of transition
Hamilton worked for five years to develop the Power Up Digital Initiative and had considered retiring after getting it off the ground. However, Holladay created a communications position for the system, which also included an additional duty of serving as executive director of the foundation board. Hamilton decided to delay retirement and instead took on the new role.
The board was implemented in 1994 with the goal of providing enriched opportunities for students and teachers within the school system. Hamilton said the board now provides $15,000 to $20,000 in teacher classroom grants each year and funds the system's third-grade violin program. It also hosts an annual banquet where teachers of the year are recognized and provides some students with financial help.
“I have loved working with the foundation board,” she said. “They are all very dedicated to Athens City Schools and to this entire community. They give of themselves to provide for our students and teachers.”
When asked about her time as a spokesperson, Hamilton said one of her biggest challenges has been disseminating information while also maintaining confidentiality where students and employees are concerned.
“Sometimes we simply cannot reveal all the facts related to a story without breaking the law,” she said.
Another challenge is the many different methods of getting the information to the public.
“There are so many tools today that people use,” she said. “It is no longer acceptable to send a flyer home with a child. A good PR person recognizes that they have to meet the people where they are. It has now become our responsibility to push the information to the viewers rather than ask them to go look for it. It is expected in today's world.”
When asked why she wanted to retire, she acknowledged the decision was difficult because she loves her job, her colleagues and going into the schools to see how excited the students are. She said her decision is simply based on time.
“My husband and I both lost our parents at very young ages. All four were 71 or younger. We know first-hand that life can change at a moment's notice,” she said. “I want to have time to be with my husband and daughter and enjoy other things while we are both healthy.”
When asked what she would do now, Hamilton said she would continue to work part-time, in addition to her gardening and fishing hobbies.
“ … And visit my daughter in Arlington, Virginia, whenever I can catch a flight,” she said.
Holladay said he's happy for Hamilton, but added she'll be greatly missed.
“She's not only a good person, but she's one of my favorite people,” he said.