Ryan Tauriainen, The Post’s Principal of the Year, in the cafeteria at the Apple Tree Institute in Columbia Heights. (Mike Morgan/For The Washington Post)

Rose Frumkin Benson couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong. It was her first year teaching at AppleTree Institute, and the preschool’s principal wouldn’t stop making unannounced visits to her classroom.

Sometimes he’d observe from the corner. Other times he’d jump in and play with the children. And there were occasions when he would teach a lesson of his own.

“I had the impression that when people come into your class, it’s a gotcha thing,” Frumkin Benson said. “I kept asking if I was doing anything wrong.”

She soon learned that this was just Ryan Tauriainen’s immersive style. The principal constantly visits classrooms to see the 160 children on the AppleTree campus, checking in on a struggling student, determining which teaching strategies are effective — and which aren’t — and just sitting on the floor playing with trucks with a group as one child climbs on his back and tousles his hair.

“It took me a while to realize that his presence was to help. To support the kids and teachers,” Frumkin Benson said. “My entire idea of a school and the role of a principal has changed. My mind was blown.”

Tauriainen, head of AppleTree Institute Early Learning Public Charter School’s Columbia Heights campus, was named The Washington Post Principal of the Year. (The honor was formerly known as the Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards.) School systems in the District, Maryland and Virginia, including D.C. public charters and private schools, selected nominees. The finalists, chosen by a panel of experts, educators and parents, are listed below. Each winner receives a trophy and $7,500.

A preschool principal working with children who are not yet even expected to know how to read might seem like an unusual choice for the honor. But preschool, and the idea that achievement gaps can be closed before they start, is key to reform efforts nationwide.

The nation’s capital is one of a handful of cities that offer universal and free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, a program that aims to get children across all socioeconomic groups ready for kindergarten with equal social and academic skills. AppleTree, with eight locations in the District and two more slated to open next school year, has a rigorous curriculum and uses tests to measure the students’ achievements — a controversial approach in pre-k, but one the school says is effective.

When Tauriainen started as the principal at the Columbia Heights campus in the 2013-2014 school year, 66 percent of students were meeting the school’s target goals for language and literacy, and 82 percent were meeting math goals, according to Anne Zummo Malone, AppleTree’s chief of schools.

In his second year as principal, 95 percent of students hit their language and literacy goals, and 91 percent reached their math targets.

“One of the greatest things our country can do is make early childhood education universal, and D.C. is on the cutting edge of that,” Tauriainen said. “We talk about closing the achievement gap, but what if we prevent it from ever happening? Our kids leave here at or above kindergarten levels.”

Tauriainen, who is just 30, wants to see the long-term effects of the approach, and he has his sights set high.

“I just want to keep moving,” he said. “I wanted to run a building. Then I want to run a school system. And then after that, I want to work at the Department of Education so I can have an impact nationally.”

Tauriainen reads a children's book he wrote to one of his students, Omar Williams, 5. (Mike Morgan/For The Washington Post)

“We talk about closing the achievement gap, but what if we prevent it from ever happening?” Tauriainen says. “Our kids leave here at or above kindergarten levels.” (Mike Morgan/For The Washington Post)

“Oh, nice shoes, Mr. T!” a father dropping off his child said to Tauriainen as he stood at the entrance greeting families one morning.

“Purple suede,” laughed Tauriainen, half kicking up his foot to show the shoe matched his purple tie.

“Hello, Egypt.” “Hello, Ms. Shirley.” “Hi, Krysta.” “Hey, Miss Diva,” he says to a child showing off her bright pink sunglasses.

Tauriainen — everyone calls him Mr. T. — knows each of the 160 children at his school by name. He knows their siblings’ names. He knows their parents’ names and their jobs. Mention a child at AppleTree, and he can recite strengths and weaknesses.

He calls each one “friend,” as in: “Good job, friend,” and shares countless high-fives.

“They love each individual kid here,” said Mike Franzinger, whose son Theoren attends.

When there was a set of twins who didn’t speak English and had spent scarce time away from their mother before enrolling, Tauriainen frequently dropped by the classroom to see how they were doing. At one point, he curled up in a ball on the floor to show the kids how to take a nap.

“He really went in there to do the dirty work,” said teacher Jennifer Hatton. “He came in to the classroom not to have a judgmental eye, but to help change wet pull-ups.”

That personalized approach extends to teachers as well. When he notices one of his more than two dozen staff members having a lousy day, he’ll pay for them to get a pedicure after hours.

Tauriainen recalled an instance last year when AppleTree headquarters changed testing protocols to require each student to have an individualized portion of the test based on their progress levels. Tauriainen thought this was an unnecessarily heavy workload for teachers, so he spent his holiday break customizing all 160 tests himself.

He has an open-door policy, and he knows what’s happening in the teachers’ personal lives. He has visited some in the hospital and talked at least one teacher through a year of wedding planning.

“Taking care of the teachers is taking care of the kids,” he said. “I always say that I’m a teacher first and a principal second. So I do everything with my teacher hat on.”

When a student unexpectedly died of brain cancer in 2014, Tauriainen consoled the teachers and figured out how to approach the death with young students. He arranged to have a bench dedicated to the toddler. And the student’s mother asked Tauriainen and a teacher to speak at his funeral.

“She was saying that you guys spent more time with him than almost anyone else. She wanted us to come to speak about the person he was,” he said. “It made me realize that every day has to be special for each kid.”

Tauriainen thought he was going to be a lawyer. As an undergraduate at Middlebury College in Vermont, he took the law school admissions exam. But when Teach for America accepted him to work in Hawaii, he opted to do that for two years before starting law school.

Those plans, however, quickly changed. He was assigned to work with students who had done poorly in sixth grade. He says he learned every student’s story and determined how each one learned. The class ultimately earned the highest Hawaii state assessment scores, outperforming even advanced classes.

“When that happened, I knew I was going to be a school leader,” Tauriainen said. “I didn’t just want these effects to happen in one classroom; I wanted them to happen schoolwide.”

Tauriainen met his eventual husband in Hawaii, and the couple moved to the District in 2010. He taught at KIPP DC, a charter school, then earned a fellowship as a resident principal at Friendship Public Charter School in Northeast Washington.

There he decided to focus on early childhood education. He applied at AppleTree, and, at 26, became principal of the campus in Southwest. A year later, he moved to the Columbia Heights campus.

“He’s young, but he’s mature,” said Zummo Malone, who hired Tauriainen. “He’s completely focused on the children, and he’s really become strong in providing coaching and modeling for his teachers.”

Tauriainen grew up in Grants Pass, a small, mostly white river town in southwest Oregon. His younger brother, Kevin, is autistic and severely mentally disabled, and for a large part of his childhood, he helped care for Kevin. That experience shaped how he approaches students with different backgrounds and needs, including those who live in homeless shelters, and others who have developmental delays and require more academic attention.

“I know I’m a different person because of growing up with him,” he said. “I am more compassionate, more comfortable and more patient toward kids with different needs.”

AppleTree is far more diverse than the schools Tauriainen attended as a child. The Columbia Heights campus is 57 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic and 15 percent white. More than 60 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, and nearly 25 percent do not speak English at home.

Chronic absenteeism is an issue, and sometimes he gives “tough love” to the parents. He’ll bring a parent to his office, lay out the student’s attendance records and stress the importance of showing up, even though, by law, students aren’t required to enroll in preschool.

And parents, students and teachers seem to be responding to his methods. This year, he serves as AppleTree’s mentor principal, instructing principals throughout the charter’s network. He has also written five children’s books that incorporate math and science concepts used in all AppleTree classrooms.

“When my son started, he couldn’t speak. Now he can speak in full sentences,” said Phillip Dawson. “They’re already saying he’s exceeding where he’s supposed to be in kindergarten.”

Finalists for the 2016 Washington Post Principal of the Year Award

Kathy Richard Andrews

Academy of Health Sciences at Prince George’s Community College, Prince George’s County

Colin Brown

McKinley Elementary School, Arlington

Ingrid Bynum

Patrick Henry Elementary School, Alexandria

Kathy Campagnoli

Frederick High School, Frederick County

Toni Chapman

St. Leonard Elementary School, Calvert County

Audrey Ellis

Piney Point Elementary School, St. Mary’s County

Kim Jackson

Seaton Elementary School, D.C. Public Schools

Cher Jones

Bonnie Branch Middle School, Howard County

Sonia Jones

Mattawoman Middle School, Charles County

Justine Klena

Herndon Middle School, Fairfax County

Michael Lint

New Dominion Alternative Center, Prince William County

Peter Moran

Glenallan Elementary School, Montgomery County

Robert Palermo

Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, Falls Church

Michael Pellegrino

Evergreen Mill Elementary, Loudoun County

William Raybold

Conway Elementary School, Stafford County

Ryan Tauriainen ( winner)

AppleTree Institute Early Learning Public Charter School,D.C. charter

John Yore

Meade Senior High School, Anne Arundel County

Perry Stein is a reporter on the Metro staff. Education editor Josh White contributed to this report.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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