Climbing atop a 40-foot ladder to wash an auto dealer's showroom window, Rick L. Fitzgerald could see a secure, if not always terrestrial, future with his father-in-law's window-washing company. To the recent college graduate in the early 1970s, the money looked pretty good and the potential for advancement seemed assured. But something was missing.

It was the kind of something Fitzgerald had gotten from working with emotionally disturbed children while obtaining his bachelor's degree in psychology at Old Dominion University, the kind of satisfaction that had come later from a short stint as a student teacher at an inner-city school in Norfolk.

So, more than a little apprehensive, Fitzgerald decided to become a teacher, landing a job -- and taking a pay cut -- as a science instructor at Graham Park Middle School in 1974. Fifteen years later, he couldn't be happier.

"From the very first day, it's one of those jobs you just get up in the morning and are excited about the opportunities," he said. "No two days are alike."

And he began climbing ladders again, becoming an assistant principal at Rippon Middle School and then at Brentsville District Middle/High School. Six years ago, Fitzgerald became principal at Saunders Middle School.

Last week, Fitzgerald, 40, stepped up another rung to become Prince William's Distinguished Educational Leader of the Year. Nominated by fellow educators, students and parents, Fitzgerald was chosen by school officials to receive the award, which is given by The Washington Post for creativity and innovation in education.

With characteristic modesty, Fitzgerald deflects the kudos.

"It's a reflection of the school, the staff and the community more than my individual efforts," he said, making a comment befitting the "Saunders Means Success For All" banner stretched across the school's entrance hall.

But accolades are quick to come from others.

"He's not like a lot of building managers who micro-manage everything. He sets policy and leaves you alone," said Saunders librarian Bill Clontz. "Everyone feels professional, not like just a small cog in a wheel."

Students agree.

"He knows lots of people by name," said sixth-grader David Smith. "He always talks to you in the halls; he's concerned about students."

"He makes it the best school he can," said seventh-grader Caina Beyer. "He puts everything into it."

Or, as one student put it: "He's most dudely."

One of the programs Fitzgerald is lauded for creating is a weekly, after-school tutorial that, using teacher and parent volunteers, tries to create an informal, interactive learning environment.

"Youngsters have needs that can't always be met in the classroom," Fitzgerald said. "They're not going to be tied to a desk, forced to raise their hands. It's a relaxing atmosphere. Let's have some fun while we're doing this."

Fitzgerald himself helps teach the math section.

"I enjoy that," he said. "When you're in the classroom, you can see so many possibilities. There are youngsters who are challenges and there are the ones who challenge you."

Quick to credit the staff and community, Fitzgerald said Saunders's parents have been "phenomenal" in supporting the school. More than 350 have signed up to do everything from helping to raise money to staffing school-related events.

Creating that sense of community has been made easier by the shift from central district planning to site-based management, where principals are given much more freedom to respond to local needs and community input. "You see teachers, parents and students taking an interest," he said. "They're able to have a voice in the whole process."

One of the things Fitzgerald is proud of having done this year is hiring an intervention counselor to work with at-risk students. "We're trying to ensure success," he said. "These youngsters, hopefully, are going to be less distracted and will distract others less."

Fitzgerald came to Prince William in the late 1950s when his father transferred to Quantico Marine Base. He graduated from Gar-Field High School. In his senior year at Old Dominion, Fitzgerald married his college sweetheart, Lee, now an assistant bank manager. The couple live in Featherstone Shores and have three children, the oldest of whom, Terri, started teaching at Woodbridge Middle School this year.

"It's nice to be able to talk education with someone in the family," Fitzgerald said.