Many school principals perform their duties well.
Then there is Cosimo Renzi, principal of Timber Lane Elementary School in the Falls Church area of Fairfax County.
"He doesn't fit the model . . . . Maybe that's what makes him great," said Area II Superintendent Marlene Holayter, Renzi's boss and onetime colleague. When it comes to taking on education challenges, "he's never in the status quo."
In a school where more than 100 of the 480 students in preschool through sixth grade qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, where about 75 students are developmentally delayed or learning disabled, where 60 percent are minorities and where about 50 nationalities and eight languages are represented, Renzi has earned respect from many corners.
Renzi recently was awarded one of 15 annual Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards after his nomination by a building custodian. In letters supporting his nomination, eight teachers and parents praised Renzi's devotion to students and to education ideals.
"I have been an educator for the last 23 years and have never met a principal as dedicated to the welfare of all children. He believes very strongly in equal access for all children to all programs, and does whatever is necessary to assure that access," wrote teacher Mary Helman.
For example, Helman wrote, Renzi periodically meets with parents from the various ethnic communities and, sometimes with help from a translator, answers questions, shares school news and tells them how to get more involved with their children's education.
Hispanic parents found the meetings particularly helpful. Attendance at the meetings with Hispanics grew from 12 at the first one of the year to 70 attendees at the final potluck dinner, where parents gave Renzi a plaque expressing their gratitude.
To cut down other cultural barriers to education, Renzi's school offers after-school tutoring for students who cannot get help withschoolwork at home because their parents work or do not speak English. The school offers a lending library of Spanish books, a Spanish class for teachers and English language training for adults.
At the same time, Renzi taps into the cultural diversity at Timber Lane as a learning opportunity.
"The population, the demographics, the mix is just a window on what's going to be happening across the country. I really, truly believe these kids have a wonderful opportunity," he said. "My job is to bring the different segments of the community together in an educational setting."
Toward that end, Renzi coordinated a live television connection between Timber Lane and a school in Wales last year after students had corresponded via videotapes and letters. Renzi hopes to take the idea a step further by setting up a phone mail system with schools in several other countries. "Our kids come from some of these places," he said.
To give economically disadvantaged students a boost, Renzi worked with the PTA to provide supplies free of charge to students involved in projects for the annual science fair. He also helped to establish a partnership with Northern Virginia Community College to expose all students and their parents to higher education.
"The student population at their campus, in a lot of ways, is like ourselves" because it is diverse, Renzi said. "We need to let our kids see and start thinking now that they can go to college."
Renzi is respected among teachers because he invites innovative teaching approaches and expects teachers to take an active part in shaping the school's educational objectives each year.
"He receives 110 percent from his faculty because of the way he treats them," said teacher Cynthia Womack.
Nor would Renzi be satisfied simply to be a hallway policeman. For Renzi, who was a teacher before becoming principal of Timber Lane nine years ago, the most enjoyable school day of the year is the day he puts away the suit and tie and joins the annual sixth grade camping retreat.
"I don't have to be the principal that day. I get to interact with the kids and really have fun," he said.