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By Paul Lonardo
The entire faculty and student body gathered in the gymnasium of Smithfield High School on Thursday, May 23, complete with cheerleaders and the school mascot. The band was playing music and the chorus was harmonizing songs that included a spectacular rendition of Queen’s “Somebody to Love.” However, this was not a typical school assembly, which was emceed by Principal Dan Kelley. Many of the town’s civic and community leaders were present, including Senator Stephen Archambault, Representative Bernard Hawkins, Smithfield Town Council Member Sean Kilduff, Town Council Vice President Michael Lawton, Town Council President Suzanna Alba, Smithfield Town Manager, Randy Rossi. Also in attendance was Smithfield School Committee members Rose Marie Cipriano, Virginia Harnois, and Richard Iannitelli, as well as the Deputy Commissioner of Education for Rhode Island, Mary Ann Snider. Even Governor Gina Raimondo made it a point to be there for the purpose of honoring Elizabeth Russillo, the Smithfield High School chemistry teacher who was named the 2020 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year. Everyone knew the purpose of the assembly except Russillo.
Soon after Governor Raimondo began speaking, praising the school for the work being done with regard to their CTE (Career and Technical Education) programs, she let the cat out of the bag.
“Actually, that’s not why I’m here,” Raimondo confided. “Even though you’re good at CTE, let’s be honest with each other, I don’t think you’d have the governor and every television camera in the state in your gym to just talk about CTE.” She paused, and a murmur began to circulate around the gym, quickly building into a buzz of excitement. “I’m here because, it turns out, that the amazing, Mrs. Liz Russillo is the 2020 National Teacher of the Year.”
Thunderous applause erupted, and as everyone got to their feet to continue their expression of joy and support for their beloved teacher with a standing ovation, two students walked out onto the basketball court carrying a school banner reading, Elizabeth Russillo 2020 RI State Teacher of the Year. She was immediately joined by her husband, Stephen, who teaches Spanish at the school, and their two daughters. She was clearly surprised and overwhelmed by the setting and what was transpiring.
Of all the speakers who acknowledged and paid tribute to Russillo for what she had achieved, it was her friend and colleague, Kristine Straus, who revealed what it is about Elizabeth Russillo that makes her so uniquely special.
The art teacher began by telling a story about how she met. Russillo back in 2007. While walking through the science wing, Russillo popped her head out of the classroom door and invited Straus inside. Her students were giggling as they stood in a line holding hands. Russillo asked Straus to join the chain of hands while touching the metal wall with her other hand. Reluctantly, Straus did as she was told when suddenly an electric current passed through all their hands, accompanied by excited screams, laughter, and jumping up and down. As Straus screamed as loud as any of the other students, Russillo explained that they had just created a circuit and she talked about electrons, jumping from person to person, conducting electricity.
This was a lesson that Straus never forgot, and for a different reason than the students.
“Mrs. Russillo conducts her classes in ways to truly help you all learn,” Straus told the gymnasium full of people. “Like an artist creating a painting, you the viewer do not often see all of the work that happens underneath the exquisite final painting. The same is true for the students in Mrs. Russillo’s classroom. When you arrive in her room, you are greeted with an exciting activity that sparks your curiosity in ways that make you fall in love with science. What you do not see are the hours of preparation work that Mrs. Russillo commits to your educational experience, to give you these opportunities for independent discovery.”
Elizabeth Russillo has been teaching at Smithfield High since 2002 and has been the head of the school’s science department since 2010. In this role, she championed the school’s efforts to fully implement the Next Generation Science Standards and she continues to develop innovative programs to bring science to life for her students. She even created a website with resources for blended and personalized learning. During her time at Smithfield High School, Russillo served as Freshman Mentor Adviser as well as Student Council Coordinator. She has served her students in so many different ways, including as a tennis coach.
Working alongside a team of educators and administrators around the state with Fuse RI, she held televised sessions teaching professional development to educators regarding technology in the classroom. Russillo also worked with the Rhode Island Department of Education as a Rhode Island Learning Champion, helping revise state graduation standards and rubrics. As an EdPrep fellow, she worked to improve educational pathways for aspiring teachers. She writes regularly on the teaching profession and served as learning coach for educators around the state as a Highlander Institute Fuse Fellow.
Last year, Russillo was named 2018 Smithfield Teacher of the Year, and Jeff Larrow, of Horace Mann, presented her with a Crystal Owl in honor of this distinction. Horace Mann recognizes educators for the outstanding work they do or a significant achievement in teaching.
We wish Elizabeth Russillo luck as she goes on to compete in the National State Teacher of the Year competition. Whether she takes home the national prize or a not, she is tops at Smithfield High School, and hopefully she will be electrifying students there about science and education for a long time to come.