On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Ridgeway Elementary School Principal Duane Arbogast walked through the classrooms of his Severn school. He chatted with teachers, doled out high-fives to students and knelt to talk to a child who was upset.

Near the end of the tour, he joked with a group of kids about a newly instituted good-behavior program. If they all got check marks for good conduct, Arbogast explained, the entire class would get a reward.

"You'll never do it," the principal goaded them.

The students became even more determined. "Yes, we will!" they exclaimed.

"You have to give them incentive," Arbogast said in an interview. "You have to find something that works."

It's that compassion and student-centered philosophy that recently won Arbogast The Washington Post's Distinguished Educational Leadership Award for Anne Arundel County.

And it's his equally exemplary work as a mentor for the county's teachers and principals that prompted Barbara Church, principal of Meade Heights Elementary School, to nominate him for the honor, she said.

"The biggest thing I learned from him is that you make decisions based on what's best for the kids," said Church, who was formerly vice principal at Ridgeway. "Pressures can distract you from keeping [that] focus. Sometimes it might be easier to think about putting the load on the teachers or easier to think about scheduling. But we always made decisions based on what was best for the children."

Church brought that philosophy with her when she became principal of Meade Heights last year. And when the educational leadership nomination packet crossed her desk, Church immediately thought of Arbogast. She encouraged Ridgeway teachers to nominate him.

They gladly did.

"When you find a person who is on the cutting edge of instruction, he raises the bar for the teachers and the kids," said Linda Scoggins, a second-grade math, language arts and science teacher at Ridgeway. Scoggins wrote a letter of recommendation for Arbogast. "There's the minimal and then there's the above and beyond. Duane is like the above and beyond. The people at the school, the staff, they really want to work for him. He's very inspirational."

Arbogast, 48, has been an educator in Anne Arundel County for more than two decades. But teaching, he said, wasn't his first career choice.

He majored in political science at the University of Maryland. An internship at the Glen Burnie Library during the summer of 1974 sparked his interest in working with children. He tutored students in reading, an experience that was more fulfilling than he'd thought it would be.

"I found working with the kids very rewarding," Arbogast said.

So rewarding that he began taking education classes and volunteering at Severn Elementary School. He also worked at Brooklyn Park Elementary School.

In 1977 Arbogast received a bachelor's degree in political science and started teaching at Crofton Elementary School. He earned a master's degree in education administration in 1981 and is now a doctoral candidate in education policy and leadership at the University of Maryland.

In 1987 Arbogast became an assistant principal at Southgate Elementary School, where he worked with then-principal Betty Lou Harris, the person he credits with inspiring him to put the needs of students above everything else.

"She taught me to put kids first in decision making, and that as an administrator your decisions should be thoughtful and not impulsive because you don't always know their outcome," Arbogast said.

Arbogast has tried to keep those ideas in mind throughout his career.

Since becoming principal of Ridgeway in 1995, Arbogast has worked to improve school math and reading programs and spearheaded a cultural arts initiative for Ridgeway's fourth- and fifth-grade students. So far the students have performed two musicals, also designing the sets and costumes. He instituted professional development programs for his teachers during which new teaching methods and the latest theories on child learning are discussed.

Arbogast also spearheaded a new way of analyzing Maryland School Assessment tests -- given to students annually to test their skills in reading and math -- that focuses on the performance of individual students instead of general trends.

Arbogast said all that work gets back to one thing: maintaining positive, open relationships with his students.

The children feel comfortable initiating conversations with their principal, something that wasn't as prevalent in elementary schools decades ago, Arbogast said.

"I think that [if] you're consistent to a code of behavior, that's how you teach children," Arbogast said. "You always treat them with respect, and the respect will be mutual."

Principal Duane Arbogast won a distinguished leadership award. Duane Arbogast works with student Jordan Ciccarelli on Friday.