Meet a Baltimore Principal Who After 42 Years Is Still Showing Heart

In 1974, I started my journey as a fifth-grade teacher at Abbottston Elementary—the following week, all the teachers went on strike. After that experience, I never imagined I would still be in education—let alone in the same school system. And now, 42 years later, I am humbled to be a nominee for the first annual Heart of the School Awards—a celebration of the significant role principals play in the success of their schools and communities. In light of this honor, I could not help but reflect on the lessons and experiences that have reiterated the importance and gratification of being a principal. Since my start as a teacher, I’ve held a number of roles in Baltimore City Public Schools, including facilitator, assistant principal and, for the past 21 years, principal. I’ve had the opportunity to serve as principal at three amazing schools: Govans Elementary School, Glenmount Elementary/Middle School, and John Ruhrah Elementary School (where I have been since 2001). Being nominated and becoming one of the 11 finalists has been a humbling experience, especially since there are 188 incredible people serving as principals in our Baltimore City Public School system. As a principal, I have learned that nothing ever stays the same. Education is always changing and school leaders have to be flexible. When I first became principal of John Ruhrah Elementary, there were approximately 225 students. Since then, the student population has grown to over 800. We’ve transitioned from an elementary school to an elementary/middle school. Negotiating—and surviving—those changes are among my greatest accomplishments. Not only were we faced with the challenge of incorporating hundreds of new students into our curriculum, but we had to find space for everyone in a building designed for only 400 students. Rainy days with no place for recess were quite the challenge! Over the years, principals certainly experience their share of stressful situations. It sounds simple, but staying calm and focused while working through them is a necessity. There was the day we lost power because a student blew a fuse. But, we couldn’t go home because the building was on lockdown due to an issue in the community. And then there was the time I had the pleasure of meeting the Secret Service when they came to confiscate counterfeit money brought to school by a pre-K student. The examples go on and on and the challenges pile up, but staying focused and composed is how principals find success. Despite the tough lessons, I love doing what I do. What makes it all worth it are moments like these: I recently had a former student visit just to tell me he is working on his college degree in mechanical engineering. Another former student visited to apologize for giving me and his teachers a hard time—he wanted me to know he was grateful and that he finished school and had a job. Moments like these are why I do this. Every student is a reminder of the change we, as educators, are able to make in the lives of so many.
Photo of Baltimore City Public Schools principal Mary Donnelly.
Mary Donnelly, in her 15th year as principal at John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School in East Highlandtown, has served Baltimore City students as a district employee for the past 42 years. Ms. Donnelly has overseen a period of major demographic change for the school, including a tremendous growth in enrollment (from 200 to 826 students as part of a conversion to K-8) and an increase in the ...

Join the Movement