By Lauren H. Dowdle
Photos by Kelsea Schafer
Never in a million years. That’s the response Jill Walden would have given 20 years ago if asked if she’d one day give up a teaching role to become principal. “Honestly, I never had a desire to go into an administrator position,” she says.
But, that didn’t stop others from seeing something special in her.
“When I was in my past school system, my principal and assistant principal wanted me to go back and get my degree in leadership,” she recalls. “I was crying to my husband because I didn’t want to do leadership. I wanted to be in the classroom.”
Walden decided to pursue the degree at their urging but then put the idea of an administrative position in the back of her mind for years. That was, until someone asked if she would be interested in the assistant principal position at Hall-Kent Elementary School. They thought she would be great in the role, so she applied—and got the job.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” says Walden, who originally joined Hall-Kent as a third-grade teacher. “It was definitely unexpected. People saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Her role as assistant principal of curriculum and instruction was task-oriented and focused on tracking the students’ academically. She managed the instructional needs of the school and ensured the standardized test scores were up to par.
“Everything about it was different,” she says about taking the position. “I didn’t want to leave the classroom, but what I didn’t understand is that I’m still with kids every single day. I get to see and impact so many more children. That’s my love and what I enjoy doing. Now, it’s just on a greater scale.”
Her impact reaches the about 650 children in kindergarten through fifth grade at Hall-Kent—and that influence is only growing this school year. After being in the assistant principal role for six years, Walden stepped into the position of principal. She says she will continue helping students improve academically, but as principal, she will also have to opportunity to get to know the students and their families on a deeper level.
“Being part of the community here is great,” she says. “My goal is to grow the relationships with those in West Homewood.”
It’s clear how deeply she cares for her school, students and staff. But working in education isn’t only a passion: It’s also in her blood. Walden comes from a long line of educators—from her mother who taught kindergarten for 35 years to aunts and uncles.
“It seems like my whole family were educators,” she says.
From playing pretend school as a child to babysitting and tutoring as she grew older, Walden says she has always had a passion for helping children. She received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and education leadership degree from Jacksonville State University and her masters from Samford University.
“I love watching them grow and learn and seeing the lightbulb go off,” she says. “I like helping them build a foundation for learning—not just academically, but also with building their character.”
Some of her fondest memories from her two decades in education are when she sees past students. “I like hearing about what they’re doing now and seeing how far they’ve come,” Walden says.
Her 13-year-old daughter, Anderson Kate, went to school at Hall-Kent, and her 2-year-old son, Hudson, will follow in her footsteps in a few years, as well. So of course, her children and husband, Nick, were excited when Walden moved into the role of principal.
“It was a natural next step,” she says.
While becoming principal is a big moment in her career, it will be hard to top the honor the school received the previous year. During her last year as the assistant principal, the school was named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. The school was one of five in the state to receive this prestigious award.
“It’s the highest honor you can receive and was a highlight of my career to receive that for our school and our teachers,” Walden says. “We look to continue that success as we move into future years.”
Their ability to show so much academic growth was even more impressive, considering Hall-Kent has a higher percentage of students on free or reduced lunch compared to the other two elementary schools in the city.
In addition to education, Walden also has a passion for interior designing—which she puts to use when they move into new houses. Though, she says she can’t imagine a career outside of the school—something that wouldn’t come as a surprise to her family, friends, teachers and staff who see her dedication and love for her job every day.
Looking ahead, Walden says she hopes to maintain the sense of community they have built at the school.
“Hall-Kent is such a special place. It’s a happy, loving place that accepts all kids,” Walden says. “When we say we’re a family, that’s sincere. We make sure all families feel that we’re here for their kids. We make sure everybody feels this is home and that they take pride in their school.”