'You are not alone'

New Russellville principal looks to advocate for students, teachers

Sarah Monfee is the new principal for Russellville Middle School. She has been with the district for 10 years and spent the past two years as an assistant principal at Russellville Junior High. She replaces former RMS principal Bryan Swymn, who is now the district’s digital-learning supervisor.
Sarah Monfee is the new principal for Russellville Middle School. She has been with the district for 10 years and spent the past two years as an assistant principal at Russellville Junior High. She replaces former RMS principal Bryan Swymn, who is now the district’s digital-learning supervisor.

About 14 years ago, Sarah Monfee was working in a bank and attending college at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, when she became pregnant with her son, Parker.

“My experience in school — I never felt like I really fit in, and I just felt like I was going through the motions,” Monfee said. “I wanted my son to have more and have a connection with students and be a part of the school.

“Then I decided that I wanted more than just my son to have that opportunity, so by getting my degree, I could make sure other kids could have that as well.”

After taking a break to have her son, Monfee returned to college and changed her major from graphic design to early education. She graduated from ATU in 2009 and later earned a master’s degree from ATU in 2016.

In April, Monfee was named the new principal for Russellville Middle School. She has been with the district 10 years and spent the past two years as an assistant principal at Russellville Junior High School. She replaces former RMS Principal Bryan Swymn, who is now the district’s digital-learning supervisor.

“Mrs. Sarah Monfee has been a valuable part of our leadership team for several years,” said Mark Gotcher, superintendent for the Russellville School District. Her knowledge and expertise in teaching and learning are truly impressive.

“She is highly respected among her colleagues, including the administration and me. I knew early that one day she would be a building leader.”

Gotcher said he has full confidence in Monfee to lead her team and her students toward excellence and to fulfill the district’s board-of-education goals.

“I think the goals have always been similar,” Monfee said. “The staff and students need someone communicating and supporting them the best I can, and life can be as ‘normal’ as possible in the school setting.”

She was approved by the board for her new position in April, and because of COVID-19 and the situation it caused in the spring, she was able to transition to the middle school earlier, even though her contract didn’t begin until July 1.

She said she has had the opportunity to interact with her staff and families and provide comfort and conversations and, in turn, have a support system for herself as well.

“I have a great team of assistant principals and staff, and we have a task to do, and we are going to work hard and do our best at it,” she said. “Our confidence is building, even though there is this level of unknown and uncertainty, but we are all doing it together.

“You feel like you can achieve it because you are not alone, so it feels like a better situation. We have a better direction, or at least a better focus.”

Russellville Middle School has more than 870 students enrolled for the sixth and seventh grades, with about 19 to 26 students per classroom. She said the district is trying to be extra sensitive this year because of the current pandemic.

There will be three options for students this fall, including on-site learning, which is the traditional coming to school, and off-site learning for students who wish to stay home. Off-site students will receive the same instruction they would if they were on-site, but technology will be the main source of instruction. Monfee said students will still communicate with their teachers, but only through technology.

A third option for students will be virtual learning, which is just like the off-site learning, but the curriculum’s source will be online curriculum sites such as Lincoln Learning and Virtual Arkansas. Monfee said the district’s teachers will still touch base with the students, but it will not be the same as off-site learning.

She said the majority of parents are choosing to send their children to school, with a low percentage of the student body choosing to participate in virtual or off-site learning.

“I think absolutely the whole reason for leadership is to be an advocate for families, teachers and students and be an advocate for those different components,” Monfee said. “It’s definitely different, but you can’t be afraid of change.

“We are trying to do our job, and I want them to lean on me and for me to give them that peace. We are going to make it through this, and we are going to make it a good year.”

Monfee is originally from Dover, having graduated from Dover High School in 2003. She has four children: Parker, 14; Bella, 11; Kelsey, 7; and Caylee, 2. Monfee’s oldest daughter is going to be at the junior high this fall, and Monfee said Bella is excited to have her mom in the building.

Matt Kordsmeier, the principal at Russellville Junior High School, has worked with Monfee for the past 2 1/2 years.

“She has a very high level of enthusiasm for teaching and learning, and she leads by example with her work habits,” Kordsmeier said. “She always communicates with stakeholders when making decisions and is excellent working with students and their families.

“I think she will do an outstanding job leading the middle school. They have a very strong staff in their building, and she is going to be able to take them to that next level.”

Kordsmeier said he and Monfee, as well as Assistant Principal Joe Sitkowski, had a good working relationship and collaborated well together.

“She helped us focus on being a more effective teacher in the classroom and other essential things that need to happen every day in order for our students to be successful,” Kordsmeier said.

He said Monfee and James Foster, director of accountability for the district, worked well together and made “huge strides for the district’s Response Intervention program, or what educators use to help students who are struggling with certain skills in their learning that prevents them from being as successful as they can be in the classroom.”

“As a teacher in the classroom, I am essentially advocating for the students and their families,” Monfee said, “and as a principal, I can continue to do that and, in addition, be an advocate for the teachers.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.