As a teenager, William Ryan wanted to become a businessman like his father, a warehouse manager for Wise potato chips.
During his freshman year of college, he took a few business courses for the first time, including a particularly hard accounting class. "I can't do this," he thought.
He decided that what he could do -- and do well -- was teach. So instead, he followed the footsteps of several other relatives who had been teachers.
"There were certain teachers growing up that I just really liked, and I always felt that if I could give something back to kids, that could be worthwhile," Ryan said.
Ryan is now the award-winning principal of High Point High School in Beltsville. In a career that has spanned nearly 18 years, he has been a teacher, a vice principal and principal of two schools. At 39, he already has won several awards, including the Patrick Daly Principal Award from Yale University and the Outstanding Educator Award from Prince George's County schools.
And this school year, he is one of 17 Washington area principals chosen by their school systems to receive the annual Distinguished Education Leadership Award from The Washington Post.
"A principal like Mr. Ryan is hard to find," Sandra McAdoo, chair of High Point's special education department, wrote in a letter supporting his nomination for the award. "He [is] an exceptional educator, a steadfast professional, and fosters the type of safe and orderly environment any educator would prefer to be part of."
Ryan grew up in Berwick, a small town in Pennsylvania with about 10,000 people. He didn't stray far from his hometown for college, earning a degree in secondary education specializing in social studies from Bloomsburg University.
It was during a job interview fair in college that he heard about the Prince George's County school system. The principal of Charles Carroll Middle School in New Carrollton, Herman Schiemer, later called him to offer him a job, and Schiemer eventually became his mentor.
So right after graduation, he traveled 200 miles to Prince George's, where he became a social studies teacher at Charles Carroll Middle. He hasn't left the county since. "I've never seen a need to go anywhere else," he said.
He lives in Laurel with his wife -- a specialist on staff development at Charles Carroll -- and three children, ages 10, 11 and 14. He has always been a sports buff, serving as the intramural director while teaching at Charles Carroll. So when not in school, he enjoys hunting, fishing, golfing and watching the Dallas Cowboys.
As a teacher, he helped develop a conflict resolution curriculum. He also took part in creating a "time-out" room for children with behavioral and academic problems.
After five years of teaching, during which he earned a master's degree in administration from Bowie State University, Ryan became a vice principal at Charles Carroll. "I was so impressed with him; in only a few years I requested he be assigned as my vice principal," Schiemer wrote in a letter about Ryan.
As a vice principal, Ryan helped create an in-school suspension center so that students wouldn't be sent home when in trouble.
"We wanted a way to keep kids in school yet at the same time provide them with strategies and techniques on setting goals and give them extra support prior to suspending them," he said.
Again, he was promoted quickly, becoming principal of Eisenhower Middle School in Laurel. Four years later, he moved on to High Point High School, where the enrollment has reached 2,200 students, about 35 percent of them qualifying for free or reduced princed meals, a key indicator of poverty.
"I just felt that in the classroom you could impact a certain number of kids," he said. "As a principal your impact can be even greater."
At High Point, Ryan again created an in-school suspension center. He also doubled the amount of time students spent in math and English classes during the ninth grade and started an academy program to prepare students for future careers.
Dissatisfied with the number of students who took Advanced Placement exams, he stepped up efforts to spread information about the courses to parents and students and developed clearer rules for admission into the program. He then required students taking the college-level courses to put down a $20 deposit, about a quarter of the fee for each test, so that they wouldn't avoid taking the test in the spring.
The plan paid off. In 2002, the number of AP tests administered at the school was 37 percent higher than two years before. And the school was recognized by the Siemens Corp. for involving more minority students in the program.
Ryan has also tried to make a difference in smaller ways. He recalls the student who regularly cut class and ran around with gangs. His father was out of the picture. "I stayed on him," Ryan said.
He talked to him often but also had to suspend him a few times. He met regularly with his mother. By the time the student became a senior, he improved his grades and graduated. He is now joining the Marines.
"Those are the kinds of things that you feel are great accomplishments," he said.
He has never regretted his decision to eschew the business world. Ironically, he said, he's now more of a businessman than he thought he would ever be, managing the school's budgets and figuring out how and where to deploy staff and spend money.
"The funny thing is a good part of my job now is business accounting," he said.