On some mornings, Kevin Maxwell can be found in his office as early as 7 a.m., shuffling through papers, making phone calls and preparing for a day of meetings with school faculty and administrators. And after the school day ends at 3 p.m., he'll stay to finish paperwork, attend a function or prepare for another hectic day. Sometimes he doesn't leave the school until 9 p.m. His days are full. But that doesn't stop him from sitting down with his students one on one to address their concerns and discuss problems in the school and how they can be fixed.

Maxwell believes education is personal. And so he makes it a point to talk with teachers, parents and students each day.

Maxwell is one of 17 area educators to receive The Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award. Letters of nomination from his staff and school administrators boast of Maxwell's ability to transform the school from the inside out.

Since his arrival at Northwestern High School seven years ago, Maxwell has worked to improve the school facility and to improve the learning experience for students at the Hyattsville school.

"[I have] the desire to achieve, to be successful," he said. "[I have] the desire to see my students and staff be successful, because ultimately that determines my success. If I leave and everything falls apart, then I haven't done a good job."

When he first arrived on the school's grounds, he was disturbed by the run-down condition of the building, which was built in 1950. His first step as principal was to get a new building supervisor and crew to improve the school's condition.

"Just because a building is old doesn't mean that it can't be clean," he said.

But he didn't stop there. He began to work with groups of parents and elected officials and pushed for a new building. Eventually he got his wish. In June 2000, Northwestern students will move into a $44 million school built just the way Maxwell envisioned--organized into small sections where computers will be in every classroom and seating will be arranged so that every student can receive special attention.

"Only a new facility could capture Mr. Maxwell's vision of how a school should be," William Ritter, Northwestern's dean of students, wrote in a letter nominating Maxwell. "He doggedly pursued his dream of a new, state-of-the-art facility."

Since Maxwell became principal in 1992, Northwestern has transformed from a school with a poor reputation into a school boasting student improvement programs and teacher leadership. When Maxwell started, only nine students out of 2,100 at the school were taking Advanced Placement exams. Now more than 75 students take AP exams.

Maxwell lengthened class time to help incoming ninth-graders improve their reading and math skills and helped develop a group for students and community leaders to connect. He also started a gang prevention program and had a peace summit with adult leaders of area gangs, when territory issues began to cause conflicts among students.

"Where there was once violence, graffiti and a climate of hostility, there is now order, safety and a growing sense of caring," Ritter said in his letter. "He is an innovator, always interested in new or better ways to solve problems and help students."

Maxwell said he talked to students and through them was able to connect with gang leaders.

"Some of the gang members were going to get expelled," he said. He brought gang leaders who did not attend Northwestern into his office, with a police officer in tow, to try to resolve the problems.

"We were largely successful at ending the disputes," he said. Maxwell also was lauded for helping teachers solve problems and improve their teaching strategies.

"It is evident from his style and demeanor that he considers his staff as an integral part of the solution to all educational challenges," Kenneth B. Haines, a French teacher at Northwestern wrote in his letter to The Post supporting Maxwell.

"He always elicits and considers the input of those who must implement policy."

Before working at Northwestern, Maxwell was principal of Buck Lodge Middle School and vice principal of Central High School, both in Prince George's County.

"Northwestern has loads of wonderful students, great faculty and a good infrastructure," he said. "There was a lot to build on. I like the community. I like my students. I like my faculty and staff."