When Rusty Hall rounded the corner at Old Town Elementary School the day after being named the district’s top principal, one of his young students excitedly chimed: “Happy birthday, Mr. Hall!”

In the kindergarten hallway lined with a “Congratulations Principal of the Year” banner, the school’s six kindergarten classes burst into the song “Happy Birthday.”

“They knew we were celebrating,” said Hall, who won the honor last week. “They just didn’t quite understand Principal of the Year.”

Birthday or not, Hall’s staff agreed that the honor is one deserving of song, dance and celebration.

“We felt like it was his year,” said Jan Morgan, Old Town’s parent involvement coordinator and one of two staff members who nominated Hall for the honor. “It was time for his vision and hard work to be acknowledged and celebrated.”

The selection committee agreed.

“Rusty stood out … because it was clear that the work at (Old Town) he has led has caused a ‘transformational shift,’” said Paula Wilkins, director of human resources for professional and talent development. “He has created an empowering culture at the school where learning for all is important and leadership opportunities exist for all staff.”

The son of a minister and teacher, Hall said that service is in his blood. He spent just four years in the classroom before moving into school administration. He said he felt called to it after receiving encouragement early in his career while working in Davidson County. Hall moved up the ranks from assistant principal to his first principal post at Nancy Reynolds, a small elementary school in rural Stokes County.

Hall moved to Forsyth County in 2009, spending three years at Rural Hall Elementary School before moving to Old Town.

“When Old Town came open, I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” he said.

Old Town is not necessarily the high-flying, well-resourced school that would be the dream of an elementary school principal. It is a high-poverty, high-minority school, with a large number of students for whom English is a second language.

On the most recent state report cards, Old Town received a D.

Still, Hall says he is not discouraged. The school has about 620 students, and he said he would love to recruit more. He said he believes in what the school is doing for the children.

“The atmosphere is just so positive,” Hall said. “The kids like coming here; the staff is amazing. It’s a great hub of this community.

“And it’s not just education. We provide for whole-child, whole-family needs.”

Recently, members of the State Board of Education visited three Forsyth County Schools, including Old Town. Hall was able to show off the school’s bilingual classrooms and such initiatives as his hour-long block of intervention and enrichment that allows for small-group instruction in each class daily.

Hall said he has no plans to leave Old Town. When his two children — Kaitlyn, 8, and Logan, 18 months — are older, Hall said, he might be interested in a position at a high school. But for now, he wants to continue what he’s started at Old Town.

“It’s hard work to get a (high-poverty) school to the point where we’re proactive,” he said.

“At no point have I wished I was anywhere else but here.”

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aherron@wsjournal.com (336) 727-4068 @ArikaHerron

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