Moments after Principal Joseph Warfield said his top priority was the safety and security of his students, a pickup truck in the parking lot sideswiped a school bus.

Warfield, who was greeting his students as they showed up for class on a recent Monday morning, broke into a run. He dashed across the Milton Somers Middle School parking lot in La Plata and leapt up the steps of the bus into a cacophony of kids jabbering about what had happened.

"It was like this loud crash!" one student said.

"All right, all right. Just relax guys. Is everybody okay?" Warfield said. "I want you to be serious and be honest. If you're hurt you need to let us know, and we'll take care of you."

Beyond one scraped elbow and a headache, no students were hurt. But Warfield popped into the nurse's office later to make sure.

"Are you okay? Do you have a Band-Aid on that elbow?" he asked one student.

"Still got a headache, baby?" he said to the other.

For Warfield, 55, protecting and nurturing his students, on the school bus or in the classroom, is what the job of principal is all about. Every year, he visits each of the Charles County elementary schools that feed into Milton Somers to tell the youngsters two things about his school: They will be safe, and they will be challenged.

"I'm a strict disciplinarian. I don't have any tolerance for anything that takes away from a child learning: distractions, disturbances," he said. "You've got to have tough love. But I want these kids to know that people do love them and care for them."

So Warfield spends much of his time poking his head into the classrooms, making sure there is no "foolishness," checking on lessons, enforcing his rule that male students wear belts.

"He's in my classroom every day," said Christina Mulhollan, 25, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade social studies. "Once we were talking about the bomb drills during the Cold War, and I asked him for his input. He stood there and went on and on about it. He loves interacting."

Colleagues say Warfield has skillfully guided Milton Somers in his seven years as principal despite the fact that it is the county's most crowded middle school, with 1,250 students, 14 trailers and several "floating teachers" who move to any available room with their supplies on a cart.

Of all county middle schools this year, Milton Somers had the highest percentage of eighth-grade students scoring proficient or advanced on state standardized reading and math tests -- at 73.1 percent in reading and 51.8 percent on math. Somers received the Blue Ribbon School of Excellence designation from the state two years ago.

Others mention smaller achievements. They recount how he brought his rototiller from home and worked the soil for a classroom's garden and how he recognizes each student's birthday during morning announcements.

"I've seen him buy clothing for kids. I've seen him pay for lunches for kids who didn't have money to eat. I've seen him take kids home in the evening when they didn't have rides home," said Cynthia Warren, the principal of Piccowaxen Middle School in Newburg, who worked under Warfield at Somers. "He's surely one of the greatest principals I've seen."

Growing up, Warfield never wanted to be a principal. After graduating from Concord University in West Virginia, he was accepted at American University's law school, where he planned to begin a career in politics. While waiting for school to start 34 years ago, he took a job teaching math at Somers, where his father was principal.

"I felt very comfortable with children right away," he said. "So I decided to switch and get my master's degree in education."

After teaching math at Thomas Stone High School for nine years, he held several administrative posts in the county school system, including principal at Piccowaxen Middle School for six years. He also has taught math classes at the College of Southern Maryland since 1976.

Warfield said he will retire within the next two years because he needs to find another job to supplement his pension. But leaving the building where he attended high school (when it was La Plata High), stepped into his first classroom as a teacher and returned years later at the top will be difficult.

"I'd stay here forever if I could," he said. "I've loved it here."

Warfield with sixth-graders Lynise Low, right, and, from left, Darren Johnson, Jonathan Archer and Jason Parker.Warfield with Catherine Mucciolo, right, and Caitlin Libby, second from right. "I'd stay here forever if I could," he says.