2007 Yearbook Adviser of the Year Downes is a friend to yearbook

Written by Elizabeth Braden, CJE

Mary Kay Downes is “uber.”

Uber is a German prefix for denoting a supreme example of a particular kind of person. That would describe why Downes was named the 2007 JEA Yearbook Adviser of the Year by the Journalism Education Association. During her career as yearbook adviser at Chantilly High School in Chantilly, Va., she has taught and mentored students and yearbook advisers from Fairfax County to the Pacific Coast.

So it should not be surprising that the person who described Downes as uber is a yearbook staffer from Arrowhead Christian Academy in Redlands, Calif.

“Crystal’s kids are like groupies,” Downes said of the Wings yearbook staff at Arrowhead Christian, led by adviser Crystal Kazmierski. “You really develop these friendships across the country.”

And that is how Cody Geib, a Wings editor, feels about MKD, as everyone calls Downes. Geib went to Downes’ sessions at the last three JEA conventions.

“I remember the first Mary Kay Downes session I saw. It was in San Francisco, and I fell in love with this lady right away. She was uber and taught me something,” Geib said.

In Denver, Downes gave the students her email address, and last fall, Geib said he was so busy and needed feedback with his college essays that he used the address.

“I sent my first batch to MKD, and she helped me out. And she cared, too. She lived on the other side of the country and probably wouldn’t have even remembered me had I not sent her a group picture we took together in Denver. But still she cared and helped me make my essays great. She is truly a great woman,” Geib said.

“I’m definitely looking forward to seeing her in Anaheim,” he said.

“I was really surprised when one of my editors sent a copy of his college essay to me for feedback, and I saw Mary Kay’s name on the list of people he sent it to,” Kazmierski said. “I asked Cody about it, and he said that he always goes to her sessions and loves to hang out with her and chat.

“Now some of my kids want me to get permission for them to go to the Adviser of the Year luncheon to hear her speech. My kids are attached to her!”

Kazmierski only has great admiration for Downes and her work.

“She is an example to me of someone who wants to give substance and depth to students so that they take journalism seriously and turn out great stuff.”

That sentiment is echoed by Chad Rummel, yearbook adviser at Oakton High School, one of the 29 high schools in the Fairfax County Public Schools district with Chantilly.

“She truly encompasses the spirit and the passion that it takes to not only teach journalism, but to care for kids,” Rummel said.

That is evident as Downes teaches her 60 yearbook students at Chantilly, plus the Fairfax County students that attend “local after-school specials,” as Rummel called them, and the students who attend her sessions at workshops and national conventions, like the Arrowhead students.

But she is a friend to yearbook advisers locally and nationally as well.

Nationally, she is president of the Columbia Scholastic Press Advisers Association, a group of teachers and advisers that work to develop the student press in conjunction with educational practices. She teaches at CSPA’s summer journalism workshop in June, and is a judge.

Downes is a big believer in being a member of scholastic journalism organizations such as JEA and CSPA, so that they can submit their publications for critique for vital feedback, and for the conventions.

“It’s imperative to take your kids to as many conventions as possible and have those experiences. That is what they remember for life,” Downes said.

She also helps head an informal support group of Fairfax County yearbook advisers, the Journalism Advisory Council. Its purpose is to network, attend conventions together and mentor new teachers and advisers.

“Within the FCPS Journalism Advisory Council, she is a natural mentor to everyone, serving as the mothership for good practices,” Rummel said.

The council has occasional gatherings, hosted by Rummel, Alan Weintraut, newspaper adviser at Annandale High School, and herself, to bring new advisers together to help them with their jobs and, as a result, reduce turnover. Mostly, the veteran advisers use email to mentor the newer advisers, making the council an “informal support group… of virtual friends,” Downes said.

“I’m very proud of the young advisers in Fairfax County,” Downes said. “And I have to give credit to the school system because they have a strong tradition of supporting students’ press rights.”

Downes also helped write the Program of Studies for photojournalism for Fairfax County schools. Every course taught in the district has a Program of Studies, but until 15 years ago, photojournalism, which is the yearbook course, did not have one. It was just another act to help yearbook advisers and students.

“MKD is a constant mentor for all of us in Fairfax County, new or seasoned,” Rummel said. “She is the face of good advising in Fairfax County.”

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Elizabeth Braden, CJE

Elizabeth Braden, CJE, is the former editor of Idea File magazine. Before retiring, she was a copywriter for Walsworth Yearbooks for more than 15 years, writing articles for various marketing materials, and proofreading copy for the Yearbook and Commercial divisions. Her career included reporting and editing for United Press International and editing for Knight-Ridder Financial News. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Media News from the University of Tulsa.