Seventeen school principals from throughout the Washington metropolitan area, described as remarkable although often unsung, received the annual Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards last night at the newspaper's downtown headquarters.

The principals, one each from the area's public school systems and one from a private school, were chosen by their own school systems to receive the awards, which Post Publisher Donald E. Graham said recognize people whose work is, by its nature, unglamorous but vital.

In presenting the awards, which consisted of an Irish crystal school bell and a trip to St. Thomas for a seminar, Graham said that the character of a school is ultimately shaped by the principal and that "if you want a great school," what is needed is a great principal.

In responding on behalf of the award winners, Kerrington Young Tillery, of Brooke Point High School in Stafford County, described the principal's job as one that begins before sunrise, ends after sunset and involves the frequent need to confront the unexpected and put out fires.

Sometimes, she said, when asked what she does for a living, she terms herself a "hormonologist." When challenged as to what that is, she said, she replies that it is someone "who deals with hormones all day long."

Graham read excerpts from letters of recommendation submitted on behalf of the award winners, who were frequently cited for attributes such as accessibility, energy, creativity and compassion.

Several were praised for bringing unity and rising levels of achievement to schools with an enrollment that was economically, culturally and linguistically diverse. Principals also were lauded in recommendations for a style that combined demonstrable affection and respect for students while holding them to strict standards.

A number were singled out for activities that appeared a step beyond the daily administrative routine. For example:

Brenda P. Shockey, principal of Middletown High School in Frederick County, is called on each year to dissect a sheep's brain as guest lecturer in psychology class.

Earl H. Slacum, of Swansfield Elementary School in Howard County, passes the door of each classroom each day, giving occupants a thumbs up.

Kevin M. Maxwell, of Northwestern High School in Prince George's County, once arranged a peace summit with leaders of area gangs.

Phillip F. Gainous, of Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County, left a student who had been called to his office for discipline with this impression: "What a cool guy."

Other winners and their schools and systems:

Gwendolyn Leecost Baccus, Burrville Elementary, D.C. public schools; Vera J. Blake, Falls Church High (previously at Holmes Intermediate), Fairfax County; Robert F. Dredger, Patuxent High, Calvert County; Kathleen W. Glaser, Hollywood Elementary, St. Mary's County; David E. Graham, Marshall Middle, Fauquier County;

Charles J. Haydt Jr., Sterling Middle, Loudoun County; Cintia Z. Johnson, Patrick Henry Elementary, Arlington County; Gayle H. Smith, John Adams Elementary, Alexandria; Joyce P. Smith, Annapolis High, Anne Arundel County; Sally L. Smith, the Lab School of Washington, a private school; David M. Trudnak, William B. Wade Elementary, Charles County; and Darci Whitehead-Scanlon, Montclair Elementary, Prince William County.