Caleb Ojeda, Connor Hennings, Nick Lomanto and Logan Wiemann should play key roles for the Acorns this season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Britton School principal takes up his other love –
For five years, students, parents and teachers at Britton Middle School have been led by the gentle but firm hand of Principal Jim McDonald, who retired at the end of the school year after serving 27 years in the Morgan Hill School District as an assistant principal and principal for several schools.

He is retiring after 35 years in education.

“He has been one of our strengths, a dedicated professional who cares for his staff and students, for many years, and he will be missed,” Superintendent Carolyn McKennan said. “His role in the district was not limited to the campus he served at the time; he gave his support to the district as a whole and mentored many of our administrators.”

McDonald, who described himself as “totally in love with the district and the community,” came to Morgan Hill from Oak Grove. And before Oak Grove, he worked in Redondo Beach.

McDonald started his career in the district as an assistant principal for Nordstrom Elementary and the former Morgan Hill Elementary School.

As a principal at Nordstrom Elementary, McDonald said he faced increasing enrollment and parents pushing for more involvement in the school.

“It is really a wonderful school environment,” he said. “And 27 years later, I can’t take any credit for that. Some of the staff who were there then are still there, and there’s the exciting feeling of a total school community, with the staff and parents working together.”

His next stop was Burnett Elementary, where he stayed for eight years.

“Another wonderful school,” he said. “The challenges were very different from the ones I faced at Nordstrom. It was a different community, with the migrant community on one hand and those from custom homes on the other. There was not a lot of middle. This brought a fascinating set of new problems, with language issues and curriculum challenges. I formed a close bond with this community.”


It was while he was embracing these challenges at Burnett that McDonald really began to pursue what would become another great love, photography.

“This is where I really began a photographic documentation of what I saw as a principal,” he said. “What I saw there, what I felt about the community, I wanted to express. It became a journal of diversity. I recorded photographs and observations, and I felt it gave me new dimension as a principal.”

Black and white photographs from McDonald’s seven-year-long photo documentary of students hang in many district buildings.

“I found I had to express the creative side of myself,” he said. “This was my outlet, this helped me keep things in perspective.”

McDonald also traveled with the Live Oak High Emerald Regime Marching Band as they took their many “Trip of a Lifetime” journeys to foreign countries, documenting the trips and performances on film.

“I’ve missed the last two trips,” he said. “I hope to be able to go with them the next time, depending on my schedule.”

He will unfortunately miss, he said, the Britton Jazz Band’s trip to Europe next week

As he flips through the bulging album containing pictures he has taken over the years, McDonald frequently points to a picture of students, saying, “I saw him just the other day, and he’s going to college now,” or “I saw her parents not too long ago, and they say she’s doing well in her job.”


McDonald’s obvious concern and care for his students served him well in his next position after the Burnett job. He went on to Los Paseos Elementary for seven years.

“Those were seven wonderful years,” he said. “Because it was a primary school, just K-3 then, it was a very different experience. I really bonded with the kids and parents.”

He describes a “little finger wave” that he and the students would share when he went into their classrooms, so as not to disrupt the classroom with loud greetings.

“I would see, in later years, one of my former Los Paseos students at the middle schools or high school, or even in the community, and they’d give me that finger wave, and I knew that was one of my Los Paseos kids,” he said.

Following his years at Los Paseos, McDonald served as principal at the former Encinal Elementary, which was a grade 4-6 school until it was consolidated with Los Paseos last year. The campus now houses the Charter School of Morgan Hill.

“I was at Encinal for two years,” he said. “It was nice to be in the same community of parents and students.”


After his two years at Encinal, he said, McKennan asked him if he’d be willing to take on one of the larger schools. There were vacancies at El Toro Elementary and Paradise Valley Elementary.

“There was also an opening at Britton, which I think she almost mentioned as an afterthought,” McDonald said. “I think she was surprised when I told her I was interested.”

That was five years ago, and McDonald describes those years as “a great experience.”

“It is a different environment, certainly, with a completely different set of challenges,” he said. “You factor in all the kinds of problems you can have with students of this age, changing emotionally and physically at a rapid rate, you can have drug problems, gang problems, even suicide. But I have been blessed with a wonderful staff that has supported me and helped me through the good times, but especially the tough times.”

One of McDonald’s students committed suicide in a bathroom at the school in 2003.

“That was one of the toughest things I’ve ever been through,” he said. “But I have never been more proud of a staff, the counselors, the students, the whole school community and the community at large … The relationships that strengthened and developed through this, with the students and with staff, have become so important to me.”

That’s one of the things he will miss most in retirement, he said. He hopes to still keep in touch with the community.

He will also be keeping busy with his photography.


“It has been so important to me, and yet at one time, I never thought of myself as creative,” he said.

His grandfather, A. Earl Hedrick, McDonald said, was a “big influence” in discovering his creativity.

“He was a Hollywood art director and very creative,” he said. “He was a painter, a sculptor, and in 1956 he was nominated for an Oscar for best art direction … He was also art director for the TV series ‘Bonanza.’ He created the Ponderosa Ranch.”

Turning his creative outlet into a business in 1980, McDonald began to photograph weddings and other special events. He soon found that as the father of two young boys and a demanding job as principal, he had to put photography on the back burner, although he continued to use his creative outlet in his spare time.

In retirement, however, he will pick it up again.

He has purchased a business in San Jose, Eagan Photographic Studio, which focuses on weddings and corporate business. He said his youngest son, Greg, 23, is training to be a photographer, accompanying him on shoots.

“It’s nice to have the opportunity to share my enjoyment of photography with him,” he said.


This kind of all-in-the-family talent sharing is nothing new for McDonald. He said if it was his grandfather who influenced his creative side, it was his grandmother McDonald that inspired him to become a teacher.

“She was a kindergarten teacher, and I can remember sitting and listening to her stories about teaching,” he said. “But really, I grew up surrounded by teachers. My aunts and uncles were teachers, my dad was a teacher.”

He worked as a teenager, he said, teaching Sunday school and serving as a camp counselor, and knew that working with children was what he wanted to do.

Another family member greatly influenced his career decision, he said. His younger brother, Doug, was diagnosed at an early age as mentally handicapped. McDonald said even his studying in college was geared towards students with learning disabilities or those who were mentally or emotionally handicapped.

McDonald said he has “no regrets” about his decision to make education his career. But he said it is a field that requires dedication.

“I would say you have to choose education because you truly love working with kids,” he said. “Someone getting into education has to know that that is their passion. It is probably one of the most rewarding and noble professions, but it can be very frustrating.

“Limited resources and other problems can distract even the best teacher. You really have to stick to your talents. If you can do that and develop relationships with the students, you can really make a difference.”

As an administrator, McDonald said, it can be even harder to keep the focus where it belongs, on the students.

“If this is something a teacher is considering, you really have to determine whether you have the gift to lead a school, to work with a diverse group of parents and not let anything distract you from focus on the kids,” he said. “That’s one reason I think my photo documentary was so important to me, because I could, when I worked on it or looked at the pictures, keep reminding myself what’s happening with the students, not to get caught up in all the administrative duties. I’ve always made it a priority to be visible and be out with the students, during lunch or whatever.”


And though he will miss those times with the students, he will find plenty to keep him busy, between his new studio and his hobbies.

“I like to play folk music,” he said. “I play all the instruments, the guitar, the mandolin, the auto harp, dulcimer. I just love to play. I’m taking guitar lessons, so I hope I’ll have more time for that. And I love to read, but there are always more books than I have time to read. I’m hoping to take some time at one of our family places in Palm Springs and Laguna Beach and catch up.”

Even with the busy schedule, the business-end of the studio, McDonald said he would like to find time to pursue his photography as an art, not just a business.

“I still want to pursue those times when I just take the camera and take photos of what strikes me at the moment,” he said. “I’ve been contacted by several school districts about doing a photo documentation, similar to what I did here, of their district. I’ve never had time to do that before, and I hope I can take advantage of some of those kinds of opportunities now.”

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