Given a choice, Douglas Baumann would have picked skateboarding off his ramp rather than reading, every time, hands down. But now he's starting to really like books.
"She's a good reading teacher," he said, looking up at Kelly Hall, the principal of Leonardtown Elementary School.
"We practice our ABCs, listening for their sounds," said Douglas, who is 8. Now he has favorite books: the Junie B. Jones series about a girl who keeps getting into scrapes. "She always gets the wrong idea in her head," he said, giggling.
Hall, who was recognized last week for her leadership as principal, was nominated for raising test scores, ensuring safety at the school and emphasizing literacy and math -- but most of all for making learning fun.
"I think the kids are happy, the teachers are happy, families are happy," Hall said, "and I'm happy to be a part of it."
It's easy to imagine her dressed up as a cheerleader, as she was for Halloween one year.
At the school Thursday morning, parents were visiting, students were playing scooter tag in the gym, children's construction-paper birds lined the walls, and classrooms were quiet as students were busy writing essays.
"She's very caring," said Julie Rock, who has two children at Leonardtown Elementary and was trying to hold on to a third, wriggling little 2-year-old Ethan, at the school's open house. "She gets back to you when you need to talk to her. She knows all the kids' names. She makes sure all the kids are taken care of."
Hall pushed to raise money for an extended-day program for students struggling with reading. Teachers were telling her that some students just needed more time. At first some parents were worried that staying at school until 5 would be too much for young children. But the school asked them to give it a try, and the program has been a success, Hall said, helping students raise their scores on assessment tests. Now 90 children are taking part.
"The kids love it," Hall said, "I think because they're getting help in a very small setting. . . . They get a lot of personal attention."
She teaches a reading group every day, which helps with scheduling and keeps her aware of curriculum and other issues teachers are facing.
Teachers, administrators and parents wrote letters nominating Hall for the Washington Post leadership award. They praised her for her organization, her encouragement of student teachers, her drive, her courtesy -- teacher Patricia Donmoyer said she has received hand-written thank-you cards and even bouquets from Hall.
Some praised her for helping students in trouble; visiting them in the hospital; finding help for hurricane victims last year; gathering coats, mittens and presents at the holidays.
Some like that she greets the students by name as they come into school every morning.
"I think all of us start our day more smoothly if you feel welcome in the place where you're coming," Hall said.
She rides the buses several times a month, getting to know both the neighborhoods and the children.
"She knows when it's time to be all about business and when it's appropriate to instill the right amount of fun into it as well," said Cathy Allen, president of the St. Mary's County school board, who found that Hall was the first school official to really listen to her concerns about her daughter's struggles with reading years ago. "She keeps the students guessing, and they absolutely adore her."
Hall, who started teaching in St. Mary's County after finishing college, has been known to bake birthday cakes for students.
Before her birthday this year, staff members sent letters home to some parents telling them Hall was turning 40. When she arrived at school, she found employees dressed in black. Her office was decorated with black crepe paper, and at her desk was a wheelchair. And lots and lots of cupcakes had been baked for her.
"The kids thought it was hilarious," she said.