YORK — When Diane Howell first applied for the job of principal of York Comprehensive High School, she was crushed at being passed over. After 24 years of teaching, she didn’t even get an interview.
Howell, now 62, was the assistant director of the Floyd D. Johnson Technology Center, but she yearned to be in charge. When she asked the district leadership at that time why she hadn’t been considered, Howell said, “I was told that York wasn’t ready for a female principal.”
Howell decided she would prove that was wrong.
A few years later, when the high school principal’s job came open again, Howell had the chance to do that. Then-Superintendent Katie Brochu offered her the job, though she hadn’t even applied for it. She accepted.
Howell admits that she was uncertain at first of her new responsibilities in a world dominated by men — other high school principals, football coaches and athletic directors — but also determined. “I was going to prove that it was OK to be a female and be a principal,” she said.
After 11 years at the helm of the school of some 1,400 students, Howell announced last month that she plans to retire at the end of this school year. “I think the timing is right,” she said.
Howell, principal since 2002, has led the York school through a critical decade of change. It included two bond referendum campaigns to enable the York district to build a new high school — the first vote failed — as well as the custom design and 2010 opening of the new school on the Alexander Love Bypass. She also oversaw the merging of ninth grade into the high school.
Part of her tenure also includes what Howell calls “the Ivory Latta years,” when the former York basketball standout, who now plays for the WNBA, led the Lady Cougars to two consecutive state championship games as she began a career that attracted national attention.
“It was good training,” said Howell, who had to learn fast how manage the media attention that began to focus on Latta. “And it was also loads of fun. She did a whole lot for our community.”
But Howell said she decided earlier this year that it was time for her to retire and spend more time with her family — including her husband Melvin, the couple’s three grown children, Melvin, Elizabeth and Jenna, and two grandchildren — and for the school to have new leadership.
“I think a new person can come in and have a fresh approach,” said Howell, a Hickory Grove native. “That’s what needs to happen. I truly believe I’ve done what God wanted me to do here. But I’m a long way from done.”
Those who have worked with Howell over the years say she brought a lot to the district. Matt Brown, assistant superintendent, said Howell’s decisions were always guided by what was best for students.
“She was truly instrumental in developing a culture of unity and success when the school opened,” Brown said. “We were adding back another grade level, and it was really important to get it off to a great start.”
Chris Black, a York Comprehensive assistant principal who was a student in Howell’s food and nutrition class during her years of teaching home economics, said Howell has been a “wonderful ambassador” for the school district.
“She’s going to be a perfectionist at whatever she does,” Black said.
‘A man’s world’
Howell graduated from Hickory Grove High School in 1969, where she played basketball and also drove a school bus for two years beginning at 16. She had a passion for “fooling with color,” she said, and planned to attend Eastern Carolina University and study interior design.
But in May of her senior year, Howell abruptly changed course, and decided to attend then-Winthrop College so she could stay in York County, near her sweetheart and future husband, Melvin Howell.
Winthrop had an interior design program within the home economics major, Howell said. One of her advisors suggested she earn a teaching certificate, because interior design jobs were not plentiful.
She finished her undergraduate degree with a teaching certificate from Winthrop in 1972, and later than year, she married Howell, a businessman and now a county magistrate and Clover town judge. She found work as a home economics teacher in Cherokee County, and engaged her design talent by serving as a buyer for her husband’s furniture business.
Six years later, she accepted an offer from York schools to teach seventh-grade science, an area where she was also certified. After another six years, she moved to the technology center to teach home economics, then became assistant director. She earned master’s and educational specialist degrees from Winthrop.
In her early years as a principal, Howell said there were few women leaders, especially in large high schools. “When you get into 4A, that’s a man’s world,” she said. “Moving into that world was really interesting.”
She also knew the high school principal job is a 24/7 commitment, and many nights and weekends were consumed by games, meets, concerts, plays and other activities — sometimes several on one night. But she said her family gave the support critical to her role.
“When you get into it, you know that and you want it,” Howell said. “No one organization is more important than anything else. But it’s fun because every season brings different things.”
Start of a new school
A new high school wasn’t in the picture at the time Howell took the job, but soon after, she said, Brochu assigned Howell and about 30 other staff members the task of visiting other high schools. They made lists of what they liked about the schools, she said, and what they didn’t like.
“That was the start of the forming of our school,” she said.
The school district asked voters in 2003 to approve a multimillion-dollar bond package to build a new high school that included a swimming pool complex. But Howell said people didn’t know what the school would be like. Some objected to plans for the swimming complex.
The vote failed.
When Brochu left and a new superintendent, Russell Booker, was hired in 2005, Howell said, York decided to try again. But first, she said, school leaders held forums to ask the community why the vote failed.
“What we found out was a lot of people did not know what they were getting,” she said. “And a lot of people were opposed to this swimming pool. We had to find out what went wrong and we had to do it the right way.”
Howell said the design of the new high school began with blocks of paper to represent each classroom needed. Each school department and the community had a voice. The school was designed from the ground up based on staff and community input.
In 2007, the York school district went back to voters once again, asking them to approve an $85 million bond to build the new high school and to revamp other school buildings.
“When we went back the second time, there was no question what the school was going to be like. It was drawn in detail,” she said. “The question was would the voters support it.”
They did — 61 percent said yes.
‘I can still feel it’
One of the most rewarding moments in her career still brings tears to her eyes. Howell brought the first students to the site of the new school for a groundbreaking ceremony, riding on a school bus with them.
When students got off the bus, the adults there broke into applause. “I can still feel it,” said Howell, wiping away tears. “They were just so excited. I can remember them walking down the sidewalk, their comments.”
The state-of-the-art school has been a source of pride for students and the community, but Howell believes it’s more than that. She believes business sponsorships, recruiting and staff retention are improved, as are attitudes toward student attendance and learning.
“I have seen almost every day, the benefits of this facility for our students and staff,” Howell said. “It’s just phenomenal, what it does. It is paying off. The expectation level just goes to the top.”
Howell also feels the school has served to unify the student body. The original YCHS was the result of a merger of three high schools — York, Hickory Grove and Jefferson high schools. Red, green and blue in the new high school foyer and other areas represent the three schools.
One of Howell’s sisters, Jane Gilfillan, who teaches history and psychology at the high school, said Howell’s departure is bittersweet. Gilfillan said she likes Howell’s organizational skills, her professionalism and knowing what’s expected. “She’s been very good at that,” Gilfillan said.
But the family of 23 also is glad Howell will be able to spend more time with them, Gilfillan said. “We enjoy our time together in the summer, and that job has so many demands,” she said.
Howell said she looks forward to doing more in her church and picking up her grandchildren after school. “I’m ready to not have a clock,” she said. “But I love this community — and I always plan to be involved.”