When Mary Day was a little girl in Heathsville, Va., playing school with her cousins, she was always the teacher. Her formal education began in a one-room school that housed three grades in a segregated system. Her first-grade teacher was one of many inspirational role models she used to sit and dream about being.
"I was very, very close to my teachers," she says, adding they were a like a mother and best friend. "I had good teachers who took an interest in the welfare of children and family."
Childhood dreams became reality in 1963 when she began her Maryland teaching career in Charles County, moving to Howard County in 1966. Now the principal of Howard High School in Ellicott City, Day, 59, has been teacher, team leader, assistant principal and principal during her 35 years in Howard County.
Education was a family priority as she grew up in Virginia's northern neck, and she now strives to continually improve education in her professional life. She takes this commitment seriously and says every student can be successful if programs are designed where all children fit in. "I feel responsible for every kid in the school," she says.
Educators can "motivate more students when they [students] can do what they like doing," says Day, who advocates changing structures to meet needs for achievement. "We need to be facilitators of learning."
To this end, her vision for Howard (and all high schools) is to establish a school of small communities, a "place where every student could join a community to explore their career choices," she says. Day thinks kids will learn better if they can focus on an area that interests them.
That vision is becoming a reality with the opening of the Academy of Finance at Howard and River Hill high schools this year. The academy will provide students the opportunity to learn about finance and business in addition to core classes. Day hopes to start an art and sports academy in the future.
The friendly, funny, sometimes self-deprecating principal who majored in business also has instituted numerous partnerships with the business community. On-the-job training, internships and mentoring programs are encouraged to help students gain workplace experience.
"Education cannot be in the classroom solely," she says. "Businesses cannot afford not to be interested in the work force."
Howard County General Hospital is one of Howard High's business partners, and Cindi Miller, director of community health education at Howard General, is one of Day's biggest fans. The two have worked on several partnerships in the past 12 years, and Miller finds Day enthusiastic about education and an excellent role model.
Parent Fay Massie compliments Day's resourcefulness and enthusiasm. "I've been so pleased with all the innovative things she's done on a shoestring budget," Massie says.
Massie's two children graduated recently from Howard High, and she was impressed with the way Day went into the community to solicit funds when additional student activities or programs were needed.
Her cooperative leadership style is characterized by an open-door policy in which anyone can approach her with ideas or problems. There might be an ulterior motive for some of those visits because she is teased about the stash of snacks in her office. "Any child who is hungry, Mary has food in her office," Massie says.
Miller has observed Day with her students and describes a sense of warmth that is reciprocated. She is "one of those rare individuals who is secure enough and strong enough to show their feelings to the students," Miller says. "I think she exemplifies many of the qualities of a distinguished leader in our community."
Day's husband, two sons and three grandchildren fill her main hobby: family time. Sports (all kinds - she attends many of her grandchildren's and Howard's games), travel and cooking are fun, too. "I can go into my kitchen and turn off the world," Day says.
Family commitment originated in a close-knit unit with an abundance of rituals and extended family. Days says her parents - her father was a fisherman, her mother a crabber and crab picker - were brilliant. They always found time to involve themselves in church and school. Day and her brothers (three older and one younger) heard from a young age that they wanted a better life and they needed to look out for each other - something they continue to do.
As for the future, Day isn't planning to retire anytime soon. She still has too much to do.
"As long as I feel like I'm making a difference," Day says, "I can continue."