Once a week Inez Wood, a Northwest elementary school principal, invites a student to her bright yellow office cluttered with dangling butterflies, blue Styrofoam spiders, paper angels, ceramic praying hands and assorted gifts of affection from her "children." The student reads to her.
"When they read to me it gives them the sense of achievement," said Wood, 52, who started the sessions to dispel students' fears of visiting her office and to encourage them to talk to her and not fear her. "And it gives me personal contact with my children and the chance to monitor their progress," she added.
Earlier this month, Wood, who has been principal of Clark Elementary School for 12 years, was selected as one of the nation's best elementary school principals and honored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) during a formal ceremony.
"She has all the qualities we look for," said Romaine Thomas, who received the same award last year and is the president of the D.C. Association of Elementary School Principals. "She is a leader, she's committed, accountable and she is a true advocate of quality education for our young people.
"She's very articulate and she doesn't hesitate to speak out to promote our goals," said Thomas, who is also principal at Ketcham Elementary School in Anacostia.
Wood heads a neat three-story tan brick schoolhouse at Seventh and Webster streets NW that draws most of its 296 students from the middle-class families who live in the well-kept single-family homes that surround the school. But, she said, "We still have children who act up in class and cause problems for teachers."
Unlike most school administrators, who drill children in the basics of reading and math to raise their test scores, Wood concentrates on her students' behavior.
"I believe that if a child's social behavior is such that he can feel comfortable working with other people, and that he doesn't have to dwell on problems silently, then he presents a readiness for learning better than the child who worries about a situation at home," said Wood, who taught school for 11 years before becoming a principal. "When his mind is divided he can't be receptive to learning."
To help children with problems, Wood created a crisis intervention program at Clark last year for students who disrupt their class, have difficulty carrying out tasks or sitting still, or who provoke adverse behavior in their classmates.
Those students are singled out and receive individual and group counseling in an attempt to help them manage the problems that are causing the bad behavior.
Teachers are also given tips and advise on how to handle children who disrupt their classes.
"Sometimes we think of most problems as petty, but that's only on the surface," Wood said. "Looks can be deceiving."
"The fashions today, for example, dictate to our kids what they have to wear or how they should look in order to belong . . . if they're not wearing the latest tags from the hat down to the shoes, then they feel apart from the rest of the kids," she noted.
This year Wood is working on a second part of her program that calls for drawing parents together to talk about some of the problems they face with their children.
"Something as simple as parents telling each other that it is okay to say no when their kids are pressuring them to buy 'labels' can help them a great deal," said Wood.
She brings to the principal's office her years as a classroom teacher. She learned that most parents, regardless of their address and their income, want their children to learn.
"I taught on the other side of the Anacostia river for seven years and most of my children lived in public housing," she recalled. "Mothers were single and the heads of the households, and most were on some kind of public assistance."
"Those parents had the same kind of caring for their children as other parents, but the economics of the situation was a great drawback for them. "They had pressures other parents didn't . . . and they don't have a support base to turn to," she added.
Wood is particularly proud that she brought to Clark three special education classes for children who are mentally retarded, have hearing and speech disorders, or are slow learners. "We want to mainstream these kids and with the help of the small classes and individual attention we see this happening all the time," she said.
Wood, a graduate of the District's public schools, now lives in Hyattsville, Md. She dreams of retiring and spending her days traveling with her husband from one place to another like "gypsies." She spends her spare time quietly planting flowers in her garden and sometimes goes camping with her husband.
But mostly she is principal, teacher, counselor, surrogate mother and disciplinarian to her students at Clark.
One recent sunny day a small child wrapped his tiny arms half way around Wood's waist. She hugged him, rocked him and then sent him on his way.
Wood said she is also stern with the children when necessary, but Sarah Hosein, 11, said Wood is too nice to be a disciplinarian. "She always has time to talk to us and she is always there to help . . . she never yells at us either," said the sixth grader and student council member.
Classmate Kimberly Walker, also 11, nodded in agreement.
But student Timothy Patterson perhaps said it best in a note he wrote Wood last year and that now hangs on her office door: Roses are red, violets are blue, you are the best principal and I love you.