The Hamilton Township Board of Education appointed Liam Gonzales July 8 to fill a vacancy created when Cameron Cardinale resigned to attend law school out of state.

Gonzales, 27, is a graduate of the Hamilton Township School District. He attended Langtree Elementary School, Crockett Middle School and Steinert High School. At Steinert, he was an accomplished athlete, earning varsity letters in football, lacrosse, tennis, spring track, winter track and wrestling. He is a 2015 graduate of The College of New Jersey.

New Hamilton Board of Education member Liam Gonzales (center, in black shirt) coaches lacrosse and football at Ewing High School. He is a graduate of the Hamilton school district, having attended Langtree Elementary, Crockett Middle and Steinert High.

A teacher at Ewing High School, Gonzales has taught special education classes and coached both football and lacrosse. He also is involved with his church, and previously lived in Colombia for a month doing mission work.

He will serve on the board for the remainder of 2020, and already has decided he will seek re-election in November’s general election.

Gonzales has spent the last four years in graduate school, studying administration and special education. His studies have focused on a topic particularly important to education today: distance learning and the role of technology in schooling.

He spoke with Community News managing editor Rob Anthes about his research and how to apply it in Hamilton via phone July 14. An edited transcript follows:

Community News: Why do you think you will be a good member of the Hamilton Board of Education?

Liam Gonzales: Well, I’m a history teacher. When I started at Ewing, I was purely a history teacher. And now I’ve become a special ed teacher. And I’ll be teaching some Spanish this upcoming year, too, along with history.

I often emphasize to my students—because they’ll be caught up in the, for lack of a better word, drama that is federal politics—that local government has such a large impact on their life and it’s so commonly overlooked. I try to remind them and push them towards what’s happening here, where they live that will have a direct impact on their life today. And because I preach that so consistently I’ve looked at running for the school board in the past, but I didn’t feel like I had anything specific to offer other than I cared and I’m a teacher. 

I’ve been in grad school for the past four years, two years special ed and now administration, and I’ve had a particular interest in hybrid or blended learning models for the past several years. So now that the pandemic has come, and we’ve been quarantined and all these schools are looking at this model that I’ve already been researching for years and I’ve already been saying is the future. So I have knowledge that could be useful to the board and the students in Hamilton. That’s why I planned on coming now.

CN: This brings up a pretty important subject, and it’s a subject that’s on the minds of a lot of people in the township: reopening schools in the fall. Do you have any opinions on how that should happen?

LG: I haven’t gone to any board meetings yet because I have not had my background check. I just filled out the paperwork to have it moved over from Ewing to Hamilton. I haven’t been sworn in—that will happen later this month. So I don’t know particulars on what Hamilton’s plan is. I know some particulars on Ewing’s plan as a staff member. 

There are a few groups where hybrid learning can be used but is not really conducive for them. Those groups are students with severe disabilities—and that can be linked to a kid’s IEP. Some students are nonverbal, they don’t have the ability to type, so distance learning is not going to be very effective. They need physical, hands-on instruction. And then the younger the students are, the more difficult and less applicable distance learning becomes.

But if you flip that, the older the students are, the more critical it becomes. Something like 61% of adults in 2018 were working from home in some capacity. And that’s up from like 40% or 39% from 2014. The numbers for 2020 aren’t quite in yet, but of course those numbers are going to skyrocket. So our students, as they graduate into the real world, are going to be asked to work remote more and more and more. We need to prepare them to do so. Because that’s what education is supposed to do. We’re supposed to prepare them to be citizens and effective members of society, which would include the workforce.

For high school students, blended learning or hybrid learning is very important. They already kind of have had this for years with seniors in high school, where they have the work program where students will come to school half day. Then obviously for college students, an insane amount of college students are taking classes online or taking blended classes where the class will be in person but half the class is online. And that’s the students’ future. So for high school students, and to a point middle school students, and to the least extent elementary school students, that’d be kind of the idea. As we get younger, more hands on. As we get older, more digital.

CN: Prior to your appointment to the board, had you attended any school board meetings as a citizen? Have you had any interest in the goings-on of the school district as a non-board member?

LG: Yeah, I’ve gone to board meetings but not this year. Not 2020, partially because of life and even more significantly because those options were taken from me due to the current situation of the world. I’ve read every board meeting from 2020, all the board minutes. I looked over the budget, both the user friendly budget and Dr. Rocco’s presentation on the budget, so I have a grasp on what’s happening within the board. There’s plenty of things that are part of the executive session, which means that you can’t see them. Or you get the extreme Cliff Notes version of what’s happening. So I don’t know what’s happening during that chunk of the board meetings, but otherwise, I think I have a grasp on what we’ll be talking about when I come in.

I’ve also surveyed a bunch of the people I know in Hamilton, teachers and paraprofessionals, some crossing guards, just to have an idea. Over the past two months, I’ve surveyed about 13 people.

CN: What were you specifically asking? What were you surveying them on?

LG: Well, I work in Ewing, so I know in Ewing how they see the board. But Hamilton is a much larger district. Their perspective could be different. So I was asking them, how do they see the board? What’s their role, for some of them? So, for example, the paraprofessional, their role might be different in Hamilton than in Ewing. The crossing guard, I ask them some specifics about their pay scale and their contract. The teachers, I already knew we’re in a contract year here, but I talked to them at different levels—elementary school, middle school, high school—about how they feel about the board. Do they feel that their union works well with the board? Do they feel supported? Do they talk about professional development? Do they like the kind of professional development they have? If they were on the board, what would they do? Things like that.

CN: Based on some of the conversations you’ve had, your own experience within the district and your research reading the board minutes, what are some ways that the district can improve? What are some of the things that you’re hoping to achieve on the board?

LG: I don’t want to tear everything down and build it back up. There’s a lot of really good things in Hamilton. But no system is perfect. Every system can be improved upon. And that’s the idea. 

One thing that I care about, and I think the board knows I care about, is making students 21st-century-skills relevant. That often ties with technology, so that that’s a big interest of mine and that’s something that I will push when available to me. And then also, I’m a teacher, so I want to support teachers in whatever way I can. I will not be part of any kind of contract negotiation involving teachers because I’m a union member. And I do not intend to leave the union. If I want to be part of contract negotiations, I could leave the union and do it. That’s not something I want to do. But I want to make sure that a teacher’s perspective is available and involved.

Those are the things that I would be most interested in, in the immediate future. And as I gain more knowledge and learn, I am sure my perspectives will adjust and hopefully enhance.

CN: Ewing, like Hamilton, is a very diverse school district with a very diverse community. From your experiences in Ewing, do you think there are ways to improve how school districts reach all the communities that live in a town?

LG: I hope so. I’ve talked with one friend in particular who said that she feels that when distance learning started that her Latino students were less likely to participate. I’m not really certain what the disconnect was there. I’m definitely going to look into it more. And we’ll be doing a level of research to see how we can shrink that gap because equity is everything.

CN: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you think is important to discuss?

LG: I’m really excited to learn. Everyone on the board has been very welcoming to me. Some of them already reached out to me through email or phone calls. I’ve had [superintendent Scott] Rocco before as professor. I enjoyed him a lot as a professor and being 100%, that was part of the reason why I was comfortable applying to the board because I’ve worked with him in the past and I really liked him. I thought, “I’d really like to work with him again.”

I plan to run in the fall, so hopefully, I am successful in that. But I’m really thankful that the majority of board members trusted me, and that’s really encouraging. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never done something quite like this. I’ve been on committees for school, which is similar, but nothing on this scope.