When Vera J. Blake has a new idea, she cannot resist e-mailing it to her staff, even if it is 1 a.m. Agitated parents walking into Cintia Johnson's office usually emerge calm and comfortable. Gayle H. Smith has a hug and a luminescent smile for every occasion.

Johnson, Blake and Smith, three unusually vibrant Northern Virginia school principals, won the 1999 Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award last month, among 17 local educators who received the honor. Winners of the award are picked by local school districts.

The award nomination letters sent to The Post from parents, students and teachers noted the increased tests scores, expanded student activities and growing parental involvement that the three administrators brought to their schools.

But many of the letters also emphasized the principals' infectious enthusiasm that raised each school's energy level and helped more children learn.

"Yes, she can be very pushy in motivating us to expand our horizons and to be open to all possibilities," math teacher Joyce M. Covington said of Blake, her former principal. "But at the same time, we know that she believes in us, and this belief opens us up to great possibilities."

Johnson loves special dress days, such as Halloween, as much as her students, and one day came to school in full Raggedy Ann regalia.

Richa Bester, a former student at Smith's school, said that when Smith smiled, "no one else could hold back their own."

Of the three, Blake has been working in schools the longest. She taught business in the Fairfax County schools for six years, beginning in 1972. She then spent a year as a human resource specialist before becoming assistant principal at West Potomac High School in 1979.

She was an associate principal at Hayfield Secondary School in 1986 before taking the job in 1987 that made her reputation for energy and innovation--principal of Holmes Middle School.

The school is one of only three in Fairfax for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, and it has significant numbers of students from homes where English is not the first language. Blake moved more minority students into algebra and other higher-level courses. She pushed parental volunteer hours up to 2,300 hours a year, then went to work on student activities.

When she arrived at the school, there were only 35 students in art courses, 20 in chorus, 21 in band and six in orchestra. When she left Holmes in May to become principal of Falls Church High School, there were 750 students in Holmes's fine arts program. Student involvement in extracurricular activities increased 100 percent during her tenure.

"Over the years, Holmes has developed, arguably, the best middle school program in Fairfax County," said Tom Gatewood, director of education programs for Virginia Tech's Northern Virginia Center.

Smith, like Blake, is also in a new assignment: She became principal of John Adams Elementary School in Alexandria this fall. She is more widely known for her last job, principal of Mount Vernon Community School, the Alexandria elementary school with the largest number of Spanish-speaking students. She began teaching in Philadelphia in 1973 and previously had served as an assistant principal at Mount Vernon and principal at MacArthur Elementary School.

Carol Laird, a parent at Mount Vernon, recalled that her first impression of Smith was not good. She canceled a meeting with Laird. She apologized and rescheduled, making no excuses. Laird said she did not learn until much later that the canceled meeting was the result of Smith struggling with an enrollment surge, a teacher shortage and a bus shortage at a time when she had no assistant principal.

During her five years as Mount Vernon's principal, Smith organized an extensive mentor program, recruiting volunteers from local churches, businesses, government offices and other organizations. She tutored students herself and showed her staff how to use computer technology to reach the many different kinds of children they were dealing with.

Mount Vernon's Standard of Learning (SOL) scores improved as a result of her efforts, Alexandria Superintendent Herbert M. Berg said. The school's scores increased by an amount greater than the improvement in the district as a whole.

"If everyone were like Mrs. Smith," Richa Bester said, "the world would be perfect. No one would have anything negative to say. Even when she seemed frustrated, mad or unhappy, she never, not once, had anything negative to say, especially to a student."

Johnson, the principal of Arlington's Patrick Henry Elementary School for five years, began teaching in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1975. She worked in schools in South Carolina, Texas and Virginia for several years before taking time off to raise her family. In 1990, she returned as a science, language arts and math teacher at Arlington's Jefferson Middle School, moving to Randolph Elementary as assistant principal before taking her current job.

At Patrick Henry, teachers and parents say, she has pursued several programs to raise achievement among students whose parents come from dozens of countries around the world. But one of her greatest strengths is relating to each child. A child who needs some encouragement or deserves a reward is ushered into her office, where Johnson will laud the child's latest essay or listen to the child read.

She has galvanized the school to help students improve their SOL scores through Saturday sessions and meetings in which parents take parts of the SOLs to better understand how to help their children.

Staff members say she delegates authority often, is supportive of their decisions and is quick to spread praise around. Someone tried to tell her recently how much she deserved the new award. "But look around me," she said.

CAPTION: VERA J. BLAKE . . . motivated volunteers

CAPTION: CINTIA JOHNSON . . . relates to students

CAPTION: GAYLE H. SMITH . . . raised SOL scores