Years ago, before John H. Robinson devoted his career to teaching at-risk children, he popped into a local McDonald's with a friend on the way to the tennis court.

Behind the counter was Steve Hamilton Jr., a teenager Robinson had taught in his Catoctin Elementary School classroom several years earlier. Robinson remembered Hamilton fondly but could not recall having made any special effort to help the young student.

So he was stunned to hear the teen tell his tennis partner that Robinson was the best teacher he had ever had.

"Steve said to him, 'If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be in school right now,' " Robinson recalled. "I still remember how moved I was by that."

Now, Robinson, principal of Loudoun's alternative-education Douglass School, devotes himself full time to helping students like Hamilton, who have struggled in traditional middle and high school settings. Douglass School provides smaller, more structured classes and more counselors.

It was on the basis of words of Douglass students and teachers that Robinson was awarded one of this year's Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards, sponsored by The Washington Post. He will join Douglas White of Fauquier County's C.M. Bradley Elementary School and 18 other principals at a banquet in their honor at The Post later this month.

In nomination letters for Robinson, several students wrote that he was the first principal who seemed to really want to hear what they had to say.

"Most of us have a special bond with him because he acknowledges the good things we do," one student wrote. "He reminds us that we're capable of doing well."

Robinson, 60, started his career as a teacher in Loudoun County in 1967, later serving two years as principal of Aldie Elementary School, where he established the county's first school breakfast program for low-income students.

He then moved to Montgomery County, where he spent 30 years as a teacher and principal. But he said he has always been drawn to this place, having moved to Loudoun as a child in 1947 and attending several county schools in the 1950s where his father was principal. So when the job at Douglass opened up in 2000, he leapt at the chance.

Robinson said that his father, who died many years ago, would be extremely proud that his son had won an award for heading a Loudoun school. He said his father taught him important lessons about leading a school.

He recalled, for instance, the time his father requested a paint job for the now-closed Purcellville Elementary School. The superintendent rejected the request, telling Frank Robinson there was no money in the budget to pay for painters. So Robinson made the school system a deal: Buy the paint, and he and his sons would spend the summer painting the building themselves.

"I was little, so I painted every peak of that school. I'd climb up the ladder because I was light, and they would hold it for me," John Robinson recalled. "I learned from that that one of your roles is to be an advocate for your schools and to find ways to get the resources you need."

Since Robinson arrived at Douglass, the school's alternative education program, which gives struggling students a chance to take core classes they have failed at other county schools, has grown. The school serves about 600 students in middle and high school each year, he said.

Several programs have been added, including classes to prepare 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds for the Graduate Equivalency Diploma exam. In exchange for the half-day courses, students agree to work a job in the afternoon and talk with counselors about career goals.

Douglass also offers a course for students who have broken school rules on drug and alcohol use. The course includes drug counseling. And the school has just started an innovative program to help students on the verge of failing ninth grade pass enough classes to move ahead in their education. Research shows that students held back in ninth grade are likelier to drop out altogether.

"I don't think we save kids," Robinson said. "We help kids save themselves."

When the kindergartners at C.M. Bradley Elementary School in Warrenton are asked to draw pictures of their principal, Douglas White, the portraits invariably come out the same.

"What you see is these two khaki-covered legs disappearing up somewhere into the firmament. With a little head somewhere up there, with glasses and a shiny head," he said.

For White, 59, who has been an elementary school principal in Fauquier County for 30 years, the story is one of perspective, a reminder of how large and imposing a figure he could be to children if he did not work hard to make himself accessible. It's also a good reminder of the practical realism with which kids see the world. After all, he said, they've got the shiny head pretty much down.

"It's not hard to take your work seriously in this job, but it's very hard to take yourself seriously," White said.

White, winner of the Distinguished Educational Leadership Award for Fauquier County, has spent his adult life in the school system there, starting as an elementary school teacher right out of college. He recalled that at the time, he lived with his parents in Falls Church and headed west each day to the rural county on nearly empty roads.

"I couldn't afford a new car and pay rent at the same time," he said. "My car cost just about a year's salary, I remember. It was a Dodge Dart, and I needed it," he said.

After three years of teaching, White took his only break from education to attend a semester of law school in West Virginia. He said the experience made him realize that education was his life's vocation after all.

"I quickly came to miss Fauquier County and its schoolchildren," he said. "There's a certain sense of adventure you get from walking into a school as principal or into a classroom as a teacher. It's continuously exciting."

His school is best known for its outdoor education program, an annual three-day, two-night camping trip for fifth-graders during which they traverse a rope course to learn team building and communication skills, and take part in outdoor science classes. White, a sportsman who bikes, paddles and backpacks, said he hopes the trip gives students a chance to appreciate the environment.

The program, begun 18 years ago out of the inspiration of a Bradley teacher, has been so successful that other county schools now make similar expeditions, he said.

Around town, White and his wife, Bronwyn, the principal of Warrenton's P.B. Smith Elementary School, are a well-known pair. At dinner out or walks around town, he said, they always bump into students, parents and, increasingly, parents who were themselves students of the Whites'.

"I never go out without seeing people I know," he said. "We feel extremely connected to this community."

Douglass School Principal Jack H. Robinson, center, has been an educator since 1967. DOUGLAS WHITE