Fifteen Washington area principals won trips to San Francisco and the recognition of their peers last night when they received The Washington Post's Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards.

"It's tough to imagine a really great school without a great leader," said Donald E. Graham, publisher of The Post.

The 15 principals, one from each metropolitan area school system, were selected by their systems after teachers, students, parents and community leaders made nominations.

Each winner receives a Waterford crystal school bell and will travel to California in April for an educational seminar at Stanford University and a vacation weekend in San Francisco.

The winners are:

Philip Arbaugh, Clarksville Elementary School, Howard County, who gives students cards on their birthdays and rewards perfect spelling papers with personal notes.

Helen Bell, Oakridge Elementary School, Arlington, whose school won a recognition award last year from the U.S. Department of Education.

Kevin Castner, Frederick High School, Frederick County, who has increased achievement by tailoring teaching styles to student needs; for example, allowing restless students to go out for walks.

Patricia Greer, John Eaton and Phoebe Hearst Elementary Schools, District of Columbia, about whom one student wrote, "Mrs. Greer is a real pal."

Alice Howard, Baldwin Elementary School, Manassas, who invites community leaders into the school each year.

Ronald Keeler, Rippon Middle School, Prince William County, who recognizes student success by handing out Slurpee passes and free fast-food lunches.

Frank Masci of Gaithersburg High, Montgomery County, who resolved a graffiti incident by having the culprits design and make a mural for a school wall.

Edna McClelland, West Meade Elementary School, Anne Arundel County, about whom one nominator said, "She never stopped being a student."

Bernice Nicewicz, Sugarland Elementary School, Loudoun County, whose enthusiasm makes teachers eager to work with her.

Alfreddy Perry, Glenarden Woods Elementary School, Prince George's County, who calls parents to alert them to students' falling grades.

Jeannette Pillsbury, principal of Independence Annex kindergarten program and director of instruction, Manassas Park, who introduced a pilot program on sex education.

John Porter, T.C. Williams High School, Alexandria, who gives awards to academic achievers as well as to athletes.

Cecil Short, La Plata High School, Charles County, who tells students to "Make a good day."

William Thomas, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, Falls Church, who allowed himself to be encased in plaster to serve as a school statute of Jefferson.

Raymond Watson Jr., Annandale High School, Fairfax County, who guided students, staff and parents through troubling times when three students committed suicide this year.

The Washington Post also sponsors the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teachers Awards.