Even after nearly four decades working in schools, it happens each year: When the students march up to receive their diplomas, Donald E. Cooke can't help but get chills down his back.

"You realize you watched these kids come in as ninth-graders," said the La Plata High School principal. "You've seen their maturation socially, academically, emotionally. You see where they were and where they are now. That's what keeps me going."

Cooke, 59, has spent 37 years in education, all but one in Charles County schools. His desire to teach, he said, began with his schooling.

An avid high school athlete especially devoted to baseball, Cooke said his coaches and teachers influenced him greatly.

"I wanted to give that back," he said, "and I couldn't think of any way better than to become that, a teacher, a coach."

After attending High Point University, he taught for one year in his home state, North Carolina, before moving soon after he married. His wife was from New Jersey, so they decided to split the difference between there and North Carolina and went to Charles County in 1969.

For three years he taught health and physical education at Milton M. Somers Middle School in La Plata. Then he moved to La Plata High School, where he taught and also served as a department chairman and athletic director. Later, he became vice principal at John Hanson Middle School in Waldorf.

Through the years his interest in sports and other activities has not diminished.

"It's not so much athletics themselves," he said. "It's any activity that can get the student involved in school beyond regular class. They tend to have better attendance, better grades."

He has coached junior varsity basketball, boys' track and field, varsity baseball and more. He has served as treasurer and president of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.

In 1988, he accepted a central administration position as supervisor of health, physical education and athletics. Four years later, he became principal of La Plata High School, where he is in his 14th year.

Under his leadership, the school's SAT scores have consistently exceeded local, state and national averages. This year, 82 percent of the graduating class was accepted to colleges, with $9.5 million in scholarship offers. The percentage of black students enrolled in advanced-level courses has increased from 7 percent in 1992 to 41 percent this year.

When he became principal, Cooke said, "I never professed to know everything about anything. I started relying heavily on staff."

The approach has served him well, he said, because of his dedicated staff members.

"Any well-run school needs more than just a good principal," he said. "We have an excellent faculty and staff here. That's what makes it great."

Charles County: Cooke said he encourages students to participate in extracurricular activities.