Region 9 Educator of Year Mary McDonald lives here
Ramona resident Mary McDonald, head counselor at San Diego’s Mira Mesa High School, has been selected California League of High Schools Educator of the Year for Region 9, which includes San Diego and Imperial counties.
In receiving the honor, McDonald beat out nine other finalists, including Robert Grace, a popular Ramona High teacher who was profiled in the Sentinel on Dec. 10. Her win came at a league banquet on Dec. 15 at the Admiral Kidd Club.
The next step for McDonald will be to vie for the state title at a league conference on Jan. 15-16 in Monterey, Calif.
The fact that she is part of this competition at all is still a shock to McDonald, who had no clue that her principal, Scott Giusti, had nominated her for the award. He found out that she was a finalist a few days before the school’s big fall sports rally and decided to use the occasion to surprise her with the news.
“I thought that this would be a great way to announce to the school that we have a finalist,” Giusti said. “The ASB (Associated Student Body) made a big banner and I contacted her husband, Mike, the day of the event and told him to come on down. The other counselors didn’t want me to tell him sooner because they were afraid he wouldn’t be able to keep it a secret.
“She really had no idea, so when we announced it in front of 2,700 students, it was pretty amazing and really special.”
“When he called my name, I didn’t know why,” McDonald said. “I thought maybe we were going to announce some scholarships. I was so surprised. I had no idea I had even been nominated until I had been chosen as a finalist. It was total news to me.”
Giusti, who is only in his second year as Mira Mesa principal, said he decided to nominate McDonald because “I could see from day one that Mary had a real knowledge about the students and the community and was in touch with all the aspects needed to be a strong student advocate.”
In his nomination letter, Giusti pointed out that McDonald encourages students to enroll in at least one advanced placement (AP) class because “statistics show that if a student takes at least one AP course in high school, that student is more likely to graduate from college because of exposure to that high level of instruction.”
Last spring more than 1,100 Mira Mesa students took AP exams, the highest total of any school in the San Diego Unified School District. Giusti said this achievement is especially amazing because of a “continually rising number of English learner and low socio-economic students at the school.”
In fact, Mira Mesa became a Title I school for the first time ever in 2008-2009, because at least 40 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals.
Still Mira Mesa has a graduation rate of 98 percent, which is outstanding considering that that the statewide dropout rate is a staggering 21 percent.
And McDonald said that about 90 percent of Mira Mesa graduates go on to higher education in either two- or four-year institutions, although she acknowledges that it may be difficult to maintain this figure, given the economy and tuition increases at state universities.
“I’m hoping we will be able to help students find financial aid,” she said.
Looking at Mira Mesa’s accomplishments, Giusti said “much of this success can be attributed to Mary McDonald’s consistent leadership and guidance.”
Giusti also noted that McDonald is great at interacting with students.
“I see that they respect her, but they are not afraid to come and talk to her about any subject,” he said. “She’s very accessible and easygoing in conversations.”
McDonald’s choice as the Region 9 winner was based on Giusti’s letter and a speech that finalists were required to give at the Dec. 15 banquet.
Supported by about 25 family members, friends and school staff, “she gave an amazing speech,” Giusti said. “She nailed it.”
McDonald said that the speech—“talking for five to eight minutes about why you feel you’ve been a change agent at your school”—was one of the harder things she’s had to do in a career of almost 30 years.
As a theme, McDonald remembered a college professor “who used to tell us that there would be ‘those days,’ but at the end of the year you need to stop and reflect that ‘It only takes one’—one life that you may have touched in a positive way.”
McDonald went on to give several specific examples of how she had been able to make a difference in a student’s life and ended by noting that “I am lucky to have had many ‘ones’ over the course of the years.
“Although a lot has changed during my career, my love for kids and passion for education has never changed. I am so honored to be an educator and so humbled to be chosen to be here this evening.”
“Her words really rang true,” Giusti said. “All of us at Mira Mesa are extraordinarily proud of her and it’s great to have her by my side. My biggest challenge last year was making sure she didn’t retire on me.”
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