Public school principals from 17 jurisdictions in the Washington area were honored by The Washington Post last night in a ceremony that recognized each of them for individual qualities and all of them for the leadership and guidance they provided to their schools, staffs and students.

Asserting that there "is no good school without a really, really good principal," the newspaper's chairman, Donald E. Graham, who presented The Post's annual Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards, called last night's recipients an "amazing bunch . . . an astonishing group."

Winners were chosen by their school systems, one from each. Their special skills and attributes, which often seemed to include combining the drive of a hard-nosed chief executive with the kindness and compassion of a close friend, emerged as Graham read from nominations submitted by system officials, students, teachers, colleagues and others.

By the accounts and descriptions of those who recommended them, the winners are optimistic, enthusiastic leaders and administrators, generally collaborative and democratic in style, ready to listen to their staffs, students and parents.

Jeff S. Abt was hailed for a "contagious positive attitude [that] reached epidemic proportions" at Baldwin Elementary School, part of the Manassas City public school system. Lee Bell, of C. Hunter Ritchie Elementary School in Fauquier County, was described as one who "runs a tight ship" but, also, in the words of a pupil, as someone who "loves us even if we do a bad thing."

In addition, leadership traits of the winners appeared to include innovation and creativity. At Graham Park Middle School in Prince William County, preliminary results of the election for student activity director gave the job to one pupil. A recount appeared to give it to a different student.

Dejection was averted when Principal Rae E. Darlington said she saw no reason "why there couldn't be two activity directors," thus demonstrating, according to the first student, how she "makes everyone's dream come true."

Winning principals found ways to stop bullying. At Mutual Elementary School in Calvert County, "if someone was being picked on and had no friend," a student wrote, Principal Paul R. Rhodes would "help you find a friend and stop being picked on."

One of the leadership secrets of the winners appeared to be a willingness to pitch in. Maria L. Tukeva, principal of Bell Multicultural Senior High School in the District, was described as someone who, among her other contributions, "waxes the floors when needed."

A common theme that emerged from nominations was the challenge of student diversity.

At Arlington's Barcroft Elementary School, Principal Miriam D. Hughey-Guy was credited with doing a "simply remarkable job" of fostering the academic achievement of a student body coming from 40 countries and speaking more than 20 languages. At High Point High in Prince George's County, William H. Ryan was lauded as a devoted leader of a school where students from 60 countries speak 50 languages.

Robert F. Yeager drew particular praise for returning from retirement and contributing humor, enthusiasm and hard work to turning around Alexandria's George Washington Middle School.

The award includes a crystal school bell and a trip to an educational seminar in the Virgin Islands.

Other winners, their schools and systems: Garth E. Bowling Jr., Maurice J. McDonough High in Charles County; George E. Chiplock Jr., Corpus Christi Elementary in Falls Church (representing private schools); Patricia A. Heiselberg, Laurel Ridge Elementary in Fairfax County; Brenda L. Hurbanis, Brooklyn Park Middle in Anne Arundel County; Carolyn M. Kimberlin, New Market Middle in Frederick County; Virginia M. Minshew, Farmwell Station Middle in Loudoun County; R. Scott Pfeifer, River Hill High in Howard County; Ida L. Polcari, Benjamin Banneker Middle in Montgomery County; Randall B. Washburn, Rocky Run Elementary in Stafford County; and Cathy L. Wiggins, Margaret Brent Middle in St. Mary's County.