When Carolyn M. Kimberlin's sixth-grade teacher at Allison Elementary School in tiny Allison, Pa., left the room for a smoke (this was in the 1950s, when teachers would still tell their students these things), he would turn the chalk over to young Carolyn.

"Carolyn, watch things while I'm gone," he would say.

And she would. And she seemed to be good at it, keeping the kids under control. So when she went away to college, the first in her family to do so, she decided to major in education.

One thing led to another, and two years ago Kimberlin found herself in charge of Frederick County's New Market Middle School -- a school not unlike old Allison Elementary, in a town not unlike Allison.

Kimberlin, now 56, apparently has not lost her touch.

The 35-year veteran educator was one of 17 awarded The Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards last month in an annual ceremony honoring top principals from the 17 jurisdictions in the Washington area.

But for teachers, parents and students who have worked with Kimberlin over the course of her career, the traits that won her the honor were nothing new.

For Bruce Brown, director of Frederick County middle schools, Kimberlin's gifts boil down to one simple trait: "She truly cares about the kids," he said, "and cares in a way that the kids know she cares.

"You can internally care as a principal and not radiate that in any demonstrable way. She is able to radiate that."

Parents say Kimberlin is unusually accessible; teachers say the same. And she is known among school administrators as a deft manager of people.

Last year, when a new building for Oakdale Middle School was not finished in time, administrators knew they would have to move the students, temporarily, to New Market Middle School. Though many portable classrooms were moved to New Market to accommodate the new students temporarily, it essentially meant fitting twice the kids in the same space. A sure hand was needed to navigate the two schools through what could be a tumultuous time. Kimberlin's name popped up quickly, Brown said.

She was asked to leave as principal of Gov. Thomas Johnson Middle School, where a new building had just been finished, after years of sharing space with Gov. Thomas Johnson High School.

The decision was a tough one, Kimberlin said of leaving the school where she had been principal for 14 years, but ultimately the right choice.

"It rejuvenated me," Kimberlin said. "I needed a change. Fourteen years is too long for a person to be in one building. That school [Gov. Thomas Johnson Middle] is part of me -- I enjoyed every single minute I was there -- but I needed a change."

For Kimberlin, educating is education -- she is known for keeping up with recent research, for not being afraid to try new things. During summer school at New Market this year, she experimented with same-sex classes for some students, a first in Frederick County. It was, Kimberlin said, enough of a success that she's trying it this year with some classes.

"I do not have a day when I don't learn something new, and that keeps the job interesting," she said. "If I didn't learn something every day, I would be terribly bored."

Kimberlin grew up in Allison with three older brothers. Her father was a coal miner, her mother a homemaker. None had gone to college, Kimberlin said, but it "was always just expected that I would."

She started at California University in California, Pa., in 1964, and graduated with a degree in elementary education in 1967. She went on to receive a master's degree as a reading specialist from West Virginia University in 1969, and did postgraduate work at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Penn State University.

Kimberlin moved from Pennsylvania to Frederick in 1976 with her family and took several years off to raise her daughter Gretchen. Then she was a reading clinic supervisor at Hood College from 1979 to 1980.

She started teaching at Valley Elementary School in Jefferson in 1980, and moved into the administrative ranks in 1985, when she was named assistant principal at Walkersville Elementary.

It was at the middle school level, Kimberlin said, that she really hit her stride.

The transfer from elementary to middle school "was quite a shock," she said. "But I could never go back. It's the age level of these students that is the most fascinating."

Kimberlin's broad range of experiences -- reading specialist, teacher, assistant principal, principal -- seem to have prepared her well for the juggling act of being a middle school principal, parents said.

"I have seldom come across an individual who could so splendidly perform the overwhelming multitude of tasks required of a middle school principal and . . . still maintain such a wonderful sense of the big picture," parent Sharla Worley wrote in her recommendation of Kimberlin. "It would take a book to do her justice."

New Market Middle School's Carolyn M. Kimberlin is one of 17 principals honored for leadership.