Tujuana White vividly recalls the day 30 years ago at St. Benedict's School in the District when her teacher was absent and the principal asked her to be in charge.
It was a request that rattled her. After all, she was only in sixth grade.
"I took it seriously," White recalls. "I made them do their lessons. Those who didn't, I didn't let go to lunch or recess." She laughs and adds: "I had no friends after that day."
But she did emerge with a new career goal. Since that time, White has focused on being an educator. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Maryland and a master's degree in special education from George Washington University, White took a job as a teacher in the District. She taught there for four years before moving to Prince George's County, where she has been a teacher and administrator for 17 years.
Now 42, White became a principal this school year at Highland Park Elementary, which was reopened in Landover after being closed for 26 years. One of more than a dozen first-year principals in the county, White is part of a new generation of leaders in the school system.
She said she hopes people stop complaining about the system, which has the second-lowest average scores on state exams and instead follow her lead to get involved.
"We are in trying times and on the verge of something great. It's up to the members of the community to make the school what it is," White said.
White was a teacher at Kettering Middle School for 10 years, where she worked under then-Principal Eleanor White (no relation), now a regional director for the school system. That's where Tujuana White got the administration bug.
She became a magnet coordinator at Lord Baltimore Middle, then spent a year as a vice principal at Frederick Douglass High and three years as a community instructional specialist, working with new teachers and administrators at several schools.
When the Highland Park job came open, she jumped at the chance.
"I'm going to support the system where my children are," said White, who is married and has three children. "If I thought there was something wrong with it, it's my job to do something about it."
CAPTION: Tre Lee, left, Edward Mines, Tanisha Turner, Principal Tujuana White and Jeniya Paul at the Landover school.