The normally loquacious principal of Howard County's newest middle school was dumbstruck yesterday afternoon.
Minutes after being surprised with a $25,000 national award for educational innovation, Kenneth T. Gill, the principal of Elkridge Landing Middle School, could do little more than hug his friends and family and mumble "thank you" over and over.
"I don't know what to say," said Mr. Gill, 46, who transferred to the newly opened Elkridge Landing this fall after four years as principal of Wilde Lake Middle School.
Mr. Gill was named one of five Maryland winners of the 1995 Milken Family Foundation National Education Awards yesterday at a surprise ceremony at state education headquarters in Baltimore -- earning a $25,000 no-strings-attached check and a trip to California in May for an education conference.
Honored for being both a "truly inspirational leader" and for "planning programs that appropriately address the academic needs of the students he serves," Mr. Gill has been instrumental in setting up several successful countywide academic programs, other Howard educators said.
"He deserves this so much," said Claire Hafets, an eighth-grade reading specialist who came to Elkridge Landing from Wilde Lake this fall and helped nominate Mr. Gill for the award. "He's just a wonderful administrator who's into everything and really cares about the students and teachers."
Superintendent Michael E. Hickey praised Mr. Gill as a "wonderful example of the kind of educational leadership we have in Howard County." He specifically cited Mr. Gill's leadership as chairman of the school system's Human Relations Task Force in 1992, a time of strained racial relations in the county's schools.
Now in its 10th year nationally and third year in Maryland, the Milken awards honor exemplary teachers and principals.
Winners -- none of whom are told that they are under consideration for the award -- are selected by each state's department of education and receive $25,000 to spend however they want.
The foundation will distribute $3.75 million in awards to 150 educators in 30 states this year -- a fraction of the more than $600 million in fines and civil penalties paid for securities fraud violations by the foundation's co-founder, 1980s junk-bond king Michael R. Milken. Mr. Milken, who lives in California, served 22 months of a 10-year prison sentence and now is completing thousands of hours of required community service.
Mr. Milken's brother, Lowell, serves as president of the foundation. At yesterday's Baltimore ceremony, he said: "We hope to strengthen education by honoring the tremendous contributions of principals and teachers on the well-being of our children."
In keeping with the award's tradition of secrecy, none of the five Maryland winners knew in advance that they were coming to the state Department of Education to be honored. All had been told that they were being appointed to a state task force on high school assessment.
But as television cameras and family members entered the room, the five began to suspect that something more was going on than the appointment of a new state committee.
"My dad saw me walk in and his jaw dropped because he thought I was supposed to be in school," said Lauren Gill, 15, a student at Wilde Lake High School. "He didn't know what was going on."
Mr. Gill's mother and wife also attended the ceremony and swamped him with hugs after the award was announced. "The school is his life," said his wife, Lillian. "I'm so glad that others also recognize his talent and dedication."
After the ceremony, Mr. Gill said he "didn't have a clue" what he would do with the money.
Mr. Gill began his educational career in 1971 in the Baltimore schools, first as an elementary teacher and then as a specialist in instruction and staff development.
From 1976 until 1991, Mr. Gill was an assistant principal and principal in middle schools in Harford County. He then was hired by Howard schools to become principal of Wilde Lake Middle.
"I'm glad we got him," said a jubilant Dr. Hickey. "We stole him from Harford County because we go after the best."
During Mr. Gill's years at Wilde Lake Middle, the school served as a pilot for special education programs, middle school peer mediation and the MASSI (Motivation, Assessment, Structure, Support, Instruction) program aimed at low-achieving students.
Mr. Gill is the second Howard County educator to win the Milken award. In 1993, Scott Pfeifer, who then was the principal of Atholton High School, won the award.
Mr. Pfeifer recently was named principal of River Hill High School, which will open next fall.
The other 1995 Maryland winners are: Dr. Gerald L. Boarman, principal of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County; Faustena "Penny" Vahsen, a teacher at Magothy River Middle School in Anne Arundel County; Peter R. Litchka, social studies teacher at North Carroll High School in Carroll County; and Miriam B. Dyer, business education teacher at Colonel Richardson High School in Caroline County.