Principal Donald Graham is a one-man welcome wagon for the 380 children who arrive at Rockville's Candlewood Elementary school each day. And, he is a one-man send-off squad when they leave each day as well.

"He knew my son's name, and his brother's name, and he knew my name," said George Barstis, treasurer of the school's PTA, recalling the first time he dropped his son off at school. "What I saw that very first day has held for three years."

Graham, 45, a quiet man with a big smile and sparkling blue eyes, has impressed more than the parents at Candlewood, where he has been principal for six years. He has also impressed his colleagues throughout Maryland, who honored him as their nominee for the National Distinguished Principal's Award.

The award, given for the first time this year, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the Tandy Corp. Fifty-four principals from across the country, in U.S. territories and at American elementary schools abroad received the award.

Graham received the award largely because of his work on the various committees and as president of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals, said school system area supervisor Lee Etta Powell.

Each principal was nominated by a state group and was selected on the basis of commitment to excellence, evidence of programs designed to meet the academic and social needs of all students, and established ties among business, community and local schools, said Linda McKennan, spokeswoman for the Maryland association.

The organization commended Graham for increasing communication between the Maryland State Board of Education and local school boards by alerting local boards of important upcoming legislative action and relaying their opinions to the state level during his term as president of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals, and for setting up a volunteer program involving 80 parents at Candlewood. The parents assist teachers and staff, teach art appreciation and tutor in a math lab they set up, McKennan said.

Graham, who lives in Rockville and who has two daughters and two sons, attended the then-Montgomery Junior College, Towson State College and the University of Maryland before earning a doctorate in education administration and supervision at Michigan State University.

Born in the District, Graham grew up in Silver Spring and attended Catholic schools and Montgomery Blair High School. He has spent his professional life in Maryland, first as a social studies and geography teacher at Newport Junior High School in Kensington, then as a teacher specialist for the Montgomery County schools. He was a principal for five years at Montgomery Knolls Elementary School in Silver Spring before coming to Candlewood in 1978.

In his airy office, a "My dad is Number One" tribute crayoned six years ago by his son, now 12, gets prominent display among the plaques, awards, paintings and rows of school system policy books.

Graham said he believes in providing "the best educational experience we can in an atmosphere that makes it a pleasant experience and a happy place. My thing is to treat the children with respect and expect them to treat me the same way."

Although his manner is quiet and restrained, he gets hugs and energetic greetings as he walks the school halls.

"They don't think I'm an ogre," he said.

Nor is he too restrained to sit in a nicely pressed suit on the auditorium floor with hundreds of small children, as he did last week during a science assembly.

Graham said he learns all the students' names and reviews all report cards before they are sent home "to give me a handle on helping" each child better.

"I don't see myself as the best or most outstanding, but as representing elementary principals" who care deeply about their students and are providing them with a good and challenging education, he said.