Area school principals Robert Hindman and Deborah Thompson are winners of this year's Distinguished Educational Leadership Award.

The award, sponsored by The Washington Post, recognizes area principals who "provide an exceptional educational environment." Hindman and Thompson were among 17 educators honored at a reception Monday night.

The winners, representing 16 local public school systems and one private school, are nominated by faculty, parents and students and chosen by their school system's selection committee. Honorees will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to an education seminar this summer.

Hindman has been the principal at Zachary Taylor Elementary School in Arlington since 1998. During his tenure there, he has helped create a variety of programs designed to fit the needs of the school's 600-plus students.

For example, this fall Hindman implemented a partnership with the Alexandria Seaport Foundation to show fifth-graders how math is used in boat building.

"He brought about changes that strengthened the school through increased attention to and improvement of measured student achievement," Arlington Superintendent Robert G. Smith wrote in his letter of nomination for Hindman. "He is the kind of elementary school principal we all would want to have."

Hindman makes it a priority to maintain constant communication between himself, staff, students and parents, supporters said. He also lobbied to have Taylor included as one of three Arlington schools involved in a professional development program with Marymount University. The program brings Marymount graduate students into county schools as student teachers. "We're teaching teachers as well as teaching students," Hindman said.

Hindman started his career in 1978 as a physical education teacher at the Devereux Foundation, a private foundation for neurologically impaired and brain-injured students in Devon, Pa. He came to Arlington County in 1984 after teaching in Sewell, N.J. He returned to New Jersey in 1989 to be an assistant high school principal. In 1996, he returned to Arlington as a teacher, was later promoted to assistant principal at Taylor and then was named principal in 1998.

Hindman's fans say they're most often impressed with his communication skills.

"It is this incredible willingness to communicate with parents, teachers and students that really distinguishes Rob," Taylor PTA President Allison Walker wrote in a letter supporting his nomination. "My children and I walk to school and see him each morning as he greets over 600 students and many of their parents outside the front doors. Remarkably, he knows most of them by name."

Teachers agree. "Collaboration is a true talent of Rob's," Taylor second-grade teacher Laurie Goss wrote in a nomination letter. "Every day finds him around the school in meetings with staff members, working to ensure that all instructional areas are fully supported and well taught and all students are well served."

Hindman said he usually works a 12-hour day, sometimes more. He is involved in several committees outside of the school, such as a school district group studying ways to even out enrollment at crowded schools without changing attendance boundaries.

"I don't feel I always get enough time," Hindman said in an interview. "My schedule, many days, is a full schedule of meetings. I have face-to-face accountability for more than 600 kids, more than 100 staff members and parents to go along with it."

Even with Hindman's busy schedule, students say he always makes time for them. "Whenever you say 'hi,' he says 'hi,' " fourth-grade student Ana Chavez wrote. "If you don't say 'hi' he will say 'hi' anyway."

"Yesterday, a ball went over the fence and he went over and got it without making a fuss," second-grade student Margaret Doyle wrote.

Thompson has been principal at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Alexandria for 10 years. She taught at Douglas MacArthur for 17 years before becoming an assistant principal in Prince William County in 1990. She returned to Douglas MacArthur as principal in 1994.

"If I had to characterize Ms. Thompson with one word it would have to be 'mentor,' " Alexandria Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry wrote in her nomination letter for Thompson. "Because of her mentoring, five former staff members are now administrators in public education."

Nancy Sparks is one of those administrators. Sparks, principal at George Mason Elementary School, worked with Thompson as an assistant principal at Douglas MacArthur for two years.

"I am truly grateful to have been mentored by one of the best," Sparks wrote. "She works side by side with her assistants while demonstrating a thorough command of instructional strategies."

Under Thompson's administration, Douglas MacArthur was one of the first schools in the city to receive full accreditation in 2000. It has remained fully accredited every year since.

"Mrs. Thompson is quite simply, everything a parent could want in a principal," Kelly Signs, president of the MacArthur PTA, wrote in a letter of support for Thompson. "She is a stickler for academic excellence and a kind caretaker for our children."

Thompson implemented "Step Up Day," an orientation for Douglas MacArthur students. On the last day of school, students get to "step up" to the next grade level by getting information sessions and packets for the new school year. The packets include items such as a summer reading list and expectations for the next grade level.

Thompson also created an eight-minute video called "This Is MacArthur" that gives new parents and students a virtual tour of the school.

With more than 30 years as an educator, Thompson has influenced generations of young teachers. Some of her former students have returned to MacArthur as teachers.

"I've been at the school for so long, my second generation is coming through," Thompson said. "When you're someone's teacher you make a special connection with them. I'm blessed to have a lot of connections like that."

Thompson said that although she is a principal, she considers herself a teacher first. "I'm always wanting to learn more," she said. "I think I'm a good manager, but I always hope I'm an instructional leader first."