Russellville Elementary bids farewell to former principal, welcomes new principal

From playing school as a child to teaching school and eventually becoming a principal, Kristie Ezzell has 31 years of experience in the world of elementary education, a field she’s been passionate about since she was young.

“I always knew I loved kids and wanted to work with them,” explained Ezzell, former principal of Russellville Elementary. “My sister went into education, and I was a few years behind her and saw what it was all about, and so I chose to be a teacher.”

Ezzell retired in May, finishing her 15th year as principal at RES. She was also director for the RCS after-school programs.

She got her start after finishing college at Auburn University, getting experience teaching kindergarten and first grade in Alexander City, after which she became a second-grade teacher at West Elementary after her husband, Terry, graduated college.

The years have brought career changes, and she said she has found joy in all of them.

“I thought I would keep teaching kindergarten forever,” explained Ezzell. “I loved every second of it. But then I moved to first grade and loved every second of that, too, and thought I’d never want to leave that. And then I started teaching second grade, and it just kept getting better all the time. I loved all of it.”

Although Ezzell loved teaching, her co-teacher and mentor Belinda Whitfield encouraged her to go into administration. Whitfield’s husband was a principal, and she thought it would be a good fit for Ezzell, telling her, “That’s what you need to do. You could lead people.”

Taking that advice to heart, Ezzell decided to work toward that goal.

“When I made the decision to get my degree in instructional leadership, I knew that an opportunity might come,” she said. “I loved teaching, but I felt I could help students on a larger level if I went into administration. I just didn’t know it would come so soon after getting my degree.”

She had started the school year with her second-graders when a job opening became available at RES, and she was asked to make a move to work there – which she did, starting in October, finishing the school year as the at-risk specialist at RES. She also took over as the after-school site coordinator. That following summer, she got the job of assistant principal at RES.

“When I made the move to RES, Joe B. Pride III, was the principal, having come over to the school when College Avenue shut down,” Ezzell said. “He was a wonderful mentor, and I worked for two years as his assistant principal.”

Ezzell said what stands out about her time in education has been the reward of helping students reach their fullest potential, citing an example from her time spent teaching second grade.

“When children came to my class and were struggling with reading, I found a way to ignite their fire for reading, and by the end of the school year, they were fluent readers,” she said. “That’s one of the most exciting things: to be able to take a child from not being able to read to being able to read fluently.”

She said strong reading skills lay the foundation for success, whatever the path a child pursues. “If you can read, you can do anything, and to be a part of that is very satisfying. I just feel like there’s no job more important than teaching.”

Ezzell is quick to note she hasn’t been in it alone, emphasizing the importance of the contributions from those with whom she has worked along the way.

“I was at RES for 18 years total, and I feel like the staff there has been the hardest-working and most knowledgeable about teaching that I’ve ever seen,” she said. “To be able to do the things they do on a daily basis to make such a difference in children’s lives is very inspiring. It’s not like that just anywhere – and our scores reflect that.”

RES was named a School of Distinction by the 2021 Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, an honor received in recognition of the school’s Bilingual Team-Taught Science Program implemented during the 2020-2021 school year to meet the educational needs of students with limited and interrupted formal education.

“The success of the program was observed not only during daily classroom learning but also through data and an increase in testing scores that same school year,” noted Ezzell. “Having RES be awarded the designation of a CLAS Banner School is very special. That’s a testament to our teachers, but it was also special to me as their leader.”

In addition, the Alabama State Department of Education named RES a Science of Reading Spotlight School, one of 12 in the state.

“She has always gone above and beyond for all of her faculty and students,” said RES fourth-grade teacher Kellie Sturdivant in praising Ezzell. “She has a heart for helping children, and she always tries to do what’s best for them. She’ll be greatly missed.”

Fifth-grade RES math teacher Angela Crittenden, who is also the site coordinator for the 21st Century CCLC after-school program, explained that Ezzell has worn many hats, having worked not only as a teacher, but also as an assistant principal, principal and director for the afterschool program for RCS.

“We have worked together a lot. She has worked many, many hours past normal school hours, and she did it because she loves her faculty, the students and the school,” Crittenden said. “She just means so much to all of us.”

Ezzell said she’s been inspired by many she has worked with in RCS, including current superintendent Dr. Heath Grimes, whom she described as “a wonderful leader.”

“He pushes his administrators to constantly learn curriculum leadership and to build relationships with our kids. I think that is part of our success at RCS, and that flows down into our teachers being lifelong learners to continually be able to give our kids their very best.

“I’ve worked for four superintendents in Russellville City Schools,” she added, “and they’ve all been incredible leaders I’ve been honored to have the opportunity to learn from.”

While she cites others as leaders and mentors along the way, there’s no shortage of people who find her work in education to be an inspiration to them – among them, RES reading coach Melissa Greenhill, who described Ezzell as a “phenomenal leader that is always fair.”

“She builds relationships with teachers, students and parents, and she always keeps the students’ best interests in mind,” Greenhill sad. “She is loved and will definitely be missed at RES.”

Although Ezzell has retired from the school system, she is taking the opportunity to help children in a different way.

In July, she began working for Kids First Education as head coach for north Alabama. The work there involves going into schools as a consultant to look at data, assess needs and provide coaching and leadership for school administrators.

She said it’s important work that will help students, and it’s a challenge she’s enthusiastic about having the chance to tackle.

“It’s a new adventure,” said Ezzell. “I get to continue learning and working, mostly with administrators, to help schools achieve successes in areas where they may be lacking.”

Grimes shared his appreciation for Ezzell’s years of services.

“Her talents and experience will be sorely missed,” he said. “She has impacted many lives and is an amazing leader and educator.

“I will miss her on my leadership team, as well,” Grimes added. “I am proud of the opportunity that she is getting to continue working to help students, in addition to being able to see her retire after a full career of service and devotion to our students.”

The new principal for RES is Tiffany Warhurst, a Russellville native who graduated from RHS in 2005. She stepped into the position after serving as assistant principal at the school since July 2018. Prior to that, she was the guidance counselor at RHS, starting in May 2011. Before RHS, she worked at West Elementary for two years.

Warhurst attended Northwest-Shoals Community College and, upon getting her associate’s degree, transferred to Athens State University, where she earned her bachelor’s in collaborative special education for kindergarten through sixth grade.

Upon completing that degree, she earned a master’s degree at the University of West Alabama in school counseling.

She then went on to get an add-on in instructional leadership from the University of North Alabama.

“I know I have some big shoes to fill,” said Warhurst. “I’ve been guided by the best administration in our state, and I firmly believe that. RES is a special place with a family atmosphere. It’s not really a job in my eyes; it’s more like an experience with family.”

She is married to Eric Warhurst, an employee of the Russellville Water Department. They have two daughters, Bailey, a fifth-grader at RES, and Aubrey, a kindergartener at West Elementary.

Warhurst said Ezzell “established a culture of learning and doing what’s best for students.”

“Something that has always stood out to me is her saying to treat your students the way you would treat your own children,” Warhurst said. “She has made an impact on thousands of kids across the more than 30 years she has been in education. I hope I can do the same. She’s going to be missed, that’s for sure.”

Warhurst said she got into education in order to make a difference, inspired by having teachers who positively impacted her life while growing up.

“I love kids and getting to make a difference in the lives of others,” she said. “Not all of our students are as fortunate as I was growing up, and I just want to make a difference. RES students are a fun age, and they have a lot of curiosity.”

She explained the atmosphere is unique at Russellville Elementary.

“RES is a special place, and you feel it when you walk through the doors. RCS is such a special school system. There’s no competition between the schools. It’s just one big family. We’re all out to help each other, and that’s the way it should be.”


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