Although the halls of Alexandria's Maury Elementary were empty of students, principal Mildred Lockridge, on an after-hours tour of the building last week, hastily moved from classroom to classroom, flipping on lights, tidying tables and delivering in rapid-fire speech specifics about each class, its teacher and students.

Lockridge, Maury's principal for the past 10 years, has the vitality of her students and the dedication that has driven her throughout her 37 years as an educator. She was among 15 Washington area public school principals who recently received The Washington Post Distinguished Educator Awards for their efforts in creating exceptional educational environments for their students and teachers.

The winners were selected by their school systems, which screened nominations made by parents, teachers, students, school officials and community members.

Entering one classroom, Lockridge spotted a teacher hunched over a tiny table, grading English papers.

"Mrs. Sutton, don't you have a bus to catch? It's getting dark. Now finish up and get out of here," she said, the sounds of her voice echoing down the empty halls. "I worry about them," she whispered.

But Lockridge doesn't appear to be the worrying type. With a commanding voice and her smile, she presents an image of tenacity and assurance.

"I live for these kids," she said.

Lockridge began at Maury in 1980, 18 months after retiring from the District's public school system, where she taught or was a principal for 27 years before retiring from Moten Elementary in Anacostia.

Her first job in Alexandria was as principal of both Maury and Lyles-Crouch Elementary. The two schools, which previously had been under separate principals, were combined in 1980 as a cost-cutting move. In 1985, the leadership of the schools was separated, and Lockridge stayed on at Maury.

As principal of Maury, which has 298 pupils in kindergarten through third grade, she prides herself on knowing each student's name.

"The thing I value the most about my job is the relationship I have with the kids. Parents who come into this building know that they are secondary. The kids are my primary concern," Lockridge said.

When meeting students in the halls or classrooms, Lockridge treats them with respect and expects the same, making them stand up straight, look her in the eye, speak properly and answer her with a respectful "yes, Mrs. Lockridge."

"I tell my students, 'you are a pretty little girl' or 'a handsome little boy.' It's important that they have confidence in who they are as people," she said.

With that approach she also applies discipline. "I don't care how much children like or dislike you, they don't respect anyone who lets them get away with anything. All kids want to be disciplined," she said.

Born and raised in Georgetown when it was a predominantly black neighborhood, Lockridge's father worked for a dairy and her mother was a domestic.

"My uncle would say to me: "Honey, why are you going to college? You're not pretty enough. All you'll ever do is work in white folks' homes," Lockridge recalled. "What other options were there for a young black lady back then? You were either a domestic or a teacher."

After graduating from Armstrong High School, she enrolled in Miner Teachers College. She graduated in 1954 and later received a master's degree in education from George Washington University.

It was Paul Cook, an English professor at Miner, who convinced Lockridge she would be a good teacher. "He made you feel that no matter what you did, you could be the best at it," she said.

Lockridge continues to hold that belief, and takes it upon herself to lead the school in improving the lives of its students.

To improve minority achievement, one of her main concerns, she heads a Saturday morning workshop for students who are having trouble in specific subjects and their parents. "Often a parent doesn't help a child with his homework because the parent doesn't understand it. This workshop teaches both the parents and the students," she said.

Another project in the works, which she has named "The Gray Foxes," is to bring interested grandparents and senior citizens into the school as volunteers.

"My philosophy is, I expect the kids to get from us what we are getting paid to give them -- the best we have to offer," Lockridge said. "If you as a teacher only do this for the meal ticket, then you won't be teaching at my school."