The Loudoun County school system honored its best students, their most inspiring teachers and an outstanding school principal Monday at the annual Excellence in Education ceremony.

At a two-hour banquet, school administrators lauded 24 high school seniors, including six from Thomas Jefferson regional high school, who had grade point averages of 3.7 or better in the first three years of school.

Many of the students achieved straight A's while working or participating in school bands, science clubs and church groups, said Assistant Superintendent Edgar Hatrick. "I don't cease to be amazed each year," he said of the group.

The students are among about 1,000 graduating seniors, he said, and include National Merit Scholarship semifinalists William Bardwell, Anthony Colosi and Melissa Cope, of Thomas Jefferson High School, and Steven Gadd, of Park View High School.

Sterling Middle School Principal Terrence Hill, who has worked as an educator in the county for 24 years, was named outstanding principal by a committee of parents and educators. Hill also will receive The Washington Post's annual Distinguished Education Leadership Award, which goes to the outstanding principal in each of the 15 metropolitan area school districts.

News of Hill's award was kept under wraps until the last moment. Superintendent David N. Thomas said the announcement came as a pleasant surprise because Hill's work with adolescents sets an example for other administrators.

"With this aged child, you have to tell them to take their gum out and then talk to them about 'Dr. Zhivago,' " Thomas said. "He does that well. And I think he's respected by his colleagues because he's a principal who is very much involved."

Edith Middleton, a mathematics teacher at Loudoun County High School, was introduced as the county's outstanding teacher. She was given the award last spring. Other teachers were applauded as the ones who gave the outstanding students their inspiration.

Several banks, businesses and residents sponsored the banquet, which was held at the Westpark Hotel in Leesburg. A series of speakers, including Thomas, Hatrick and several principal, traded quips and introduced students, parents and teachers.

But it was keynote speaker James W. Symington, a former U.S. representative and U.S. chief of protocol, who prompted the most laughter. He bore down on what it means to be an achiever. And with comments directed at students but meant for all his audience, he gave a wry lecture about education.

"I confess to feeling a bit intimidated to be in the presence of three years' worth of straight-A students," he said. "I pulled down a few A's, but clung to my B's like a drowning man."

Symington admitted his lack of talent in mathematics, joking that it nearly cost him his inheritance when he was flunking a calculus class at Yale. He wound his way to the importance of reading and implored the teenagers, many of whom excel at technical subjects, to learn to read and write.

"My hope for all of them, be they inclined to science, medicine, agriculture, business or public affairs, is that they read, write and speak the English language as if it were a treasure," he said.

"We are on the threshold of what has been called the age of communication, but fax machines, cellular phones and fiber-optic cables can only speed the product. They cannot create it. That capacity is still confined to the human brain."

Others honored were:

Broad Run High School: Shawn Arent, Jenny Pan, Jay Sabia, Heather White.

Loudoun Valley High School: Noah Coberly.

Loudoun County High School: Melissa Miller, Allison Perso, Jennifer Schaeffer.

Park View High School: Robin Brindley, Eileen Harris, Christine Harrison, Christine Landry, Gerald Seaton, Patricia Seay, Joseph Waters.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology: Carri Finch, Jill Hansen, Renee Hutchins, Douglas Min, Jennifer Virgo.