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4 Torrey Pines Elementary School teachers retiring after a combined century of service

Cathy Isom, a science teacher at Torrey Pines Elementary, is pictured in 2005 with fifth-graders and the class corn snake.
Cathy Isom, a science teacher at Torrey Pines Elementary School, is pictured in 2005 with fifth-graders and the class corn snake. Isom is retiring after 21 years at the school.
(Courtesy)

Four teachers with a combined 115 years of experience at La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Elementary School are retiring this month, leaving the school with lessons in collaboration and community.

Wendy Gillespie, Dene Hilsen, Cathy Isom and Jana Keating opted to take the San Diego Unified School District’s latest offer of early retirement and are among a districtwide group whose last day with students will be Friday, Dec. 18.

The district projects budget cuts for next year while not knowing how much state and federal funding it will get.

Gillespie, who has taught first through third grades at TPES for 30 years, said she feels “sad” to be retiring now and that she will miss “the kids and the impact I had on any of them.”

She read a 2017 note from a student: “I think you are a good teacher because … you say mistakes only help you learn … you let us have second chances.”

“This is what I want my legacy to be,” Gillespie said. “I love spending time with the children in my classroom.”

Wendy Gillespie is leaving Torrey Pines Elementary School after 30 years.
Wendy Gillespie is leaving Torrey Pines Elementary School after 30 years.
(Courtesy)

TPES Principal Nona Richard said Gillespie “is someone who’s really committed to kids. She can take the most challenging kids with learning disabilities and she brings out the best of them. She’s structured but is so full of love. The kids feel really connected to her and want to do their best. She’s turned around the lives of many students.”

Brian and Danielle Miller, whose son Nathan, 20, was a student of Gillespie’s at age 6, said Gillespie “was the funniest teacher and always smiling and laughing. It was contagious and the kids responded to her sense of humor and spirit.”

Gillespie said she is “excited about Act 2” after retirement. She plans to travel “when that’s available” and said, “I’m not finished working; I go crazy if I don’t have something to do.”

Dene Hilsen has taught at TPES for 30 years.
Dene Hilsen has taught at TPES for 30 years.
(Courtesy)

Hilsen is retiring after 30 years teaching first and third grades at TPES. She said the school is “a wonderful place to work. It’s a small school, kind of like a family. I love the people that I worked with; everyone worked together to make Torrey Pines a really special school.”

Richard said Hilsen is “another stalwart of the institution. She’s consistent and dependable. She’s had great relationships with her students and enjoys coming to work each day. Dene has enthusiastically loved her students.”

Katharine Williams, whose son Cole, 11, had Hilsen as a teacher for first grade, said Hilsen “is an incredibly experienced, kind and wonderful teacher. She truly made school a fun place for the kids. In her 30 years at TPES, she has impacted so many children’s lives. Our family heard about Ms. Hilsen and her outstanding teaching years before we were lucky enough to have her.”

Hilsen said she will miss her colleagues, many of whom she’s known “a long, long time,” and the students. “I like being around that kid energy, how they see the world,” she said.

After retirement, Hilsen plans to hike and be outdoors, as well as “explore some creative things I didn’t have time to do before,” like working in her garden.

Isom, who has taught science to all grade levels at TPES for 21 years, said teaching there has “been an honor and a privilege” and she’ll miss the staff, parents and students. “We’ve had ridiculous fun.”

Isom, an avid ocean swimmer who loves outdoor activities, said “science is my passion,” and she has tried to instill that in her students.

Richard said Isom “brings her experiences outside to her classroom. She lives science and embodies natural law. She always goes above and beyond for kids, [and] people love her: the kids, the parents, the other teachers. She’s a gifted teacher.”

Irene McCann, whose now-teenage sons Nico and George learned science from Isom during their years at TPES, said Isom’s nickname is “Ms. Awesome Isom.”

She has “a way of teaching that encouraged students, kept them curious and engaged in class and had them learning complex concepts at young ages,” McCann said.

Isom said retiring is “bittersweet. I don’t think any of us planned to leave in the middle of the school year. Leaving in the middle is really difficult.”

Once she is officially retired, Isom hopes to travel and split her time between San Diego and Aspen, Colo.

Jana Keating holds the record for the most years at TPES. She's retiring this month after 34 years.
Jana Keating holds the record for the most years at TPES. She’s retiring this month after 34 years.
(Courtesy)

With 34 years at TPES, Jana Keating, who first taught second and third grades and then science across all grades, said retiring after being at “the same school more than half my life is … bittersweet. It’s a part of me, the community’s a part of me. I’ve taught second-generation students — kids of old students. I feel like I’ve taught an entire generation.”

Keating said she is “especially proud of … Science Discovery Day,” an activity she implemented at TPES 26 years ago to immerse students in a day of science with science professionals from the community.

Richard said Keating is “so good at [teaching]. She’s an incredibly organized and prepared teacher. She’s had to go through so many administrators; she’s been able to navigate all of that. We’re excited for the next step in her journey.”

Keating said she will miss the staff, whom she called “hard-working and professional,” and the parent community that has “been so supportive” over the years.

However, she said she’s looking forward to “cultivating some of the interests I’ve put aside because teaching is so time-consuming.”

Williams, whose four children have been or are currently being taught by Keating for science, said Keating “has spent her entire teaching career dedicated to TPES students and is known for her kind, caring and excellent teaching. She fostered excitement in science for the kids, and they were so sad to hear that she was leaving the school.”

Richard said all four retirees have been coordinating with their replacement teachers. “We’re looking for really smooth transitions,” she said. “We feel really fortunate we were able to secure top-notch teachers” mid-school year.

The school is planning a celebration for the retirees Wednesday, Dec. 16, as part of scheduled virtual professional development. The TPES Foundation is asking for parents’ messages for and photos with the retirees, as well as donations to Venmo accounts for each. To contribute or for more information, email president@tpesfoundation.org.