Margaret Egan's workday starts the same way every day: greeting every single child who makes his or her way into SS. Peter and Paul Catholic School in West Chester.
It doesn't matter that Egan is the boss who never sits down, a person with a to-do list a mile long. Even 50 years into a career in education, she still finds her joy and purpose in small but meaningful interactions with students — hello's at the door, questions about their day during lunch, a check-in during a reading lesson.
Egan was recently named a winner of the Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding Leadership, a U.S. Department of Education prize given this year to just 11 people in the country, all principals — like Egan — of 2018 National Blue Ribbon Schools. The award "recognizes outstanding school leaders and the vital role they play in guiding students and schools to excellence, frequently under challenging circumstances," according to the Education Department.
The school is one of eight Archdiocese of Philadelphia Blue Ribbon schools this year, a record for the school system; Egan is its first Bell Award winner.
Their principal is a "true visionary," Egan's staffers wrote in their nominating letter, an educator who innovates, takes risks, and has insisted on excellence for the 17 years she has led the school.
Egan — "Peg" to all the adults in the building — is the kind of leader people want to work for, said seventh- and eighth-grade teacher Lynn Dickson.
She "has a way of bringing out the best in everybody," Dickson said. "She takes everyone's needs into account."
It's nice that their principal won a fancy prize, a group of students said, but they're not sure why it took so long. They have known Egan is special for a long time.
"She's nice," one second-grade girl said. "She's the best principal."
"She's firm," a second-grade boy said, "but she's smart." (And no, you can't sweet-talk her into outside recess on a day when the grass is still wet from fresh rain.)
Even the youngest kids know Egan as approachable and warm, a principal in walking shoes who has an office but never seems to be in it. In addition to her self-appointed morning greeting duties, she monitors every lunch period, waves goodbye to students at dismissal, and spends the moments between mostly in classrooms.
It's been a long road for Egan, who got her first taste of education when she joined a "cadet" program for aspiring teachers. Fresh out of Archbishop Prendergast High School, the Collingdale native was given a class of 55 fourth graders at St. Gabriel School in Norwood. She was 17 and, surprisingly, not flustered.
"I had brothers and sisters at home — and a lot of responsibility," Egan said. "I was destined for that."
After earning an education degree at what was then Gwynedd-Mercy College, Egan went on to teach full-time at St. Gabriel. She stayed for more than 30 years, leaving in 2001 to help start SS. Peter and Paul in Chester County, working at first as the technology and physical education teacher.
When the school's founding principal died a year later, Egan took over, and, parent Sally Lemheney said, "she has been the anchor of the school ever since."
These days, the school educates 371 children in preschool through eighth grade in a spacious, modern building on Boot Road equipped with the latest technology and a host of opportunities Egan has worked hard to provide for students. SS. Peter and Paul has a student-run television studio and a school store that belongs to the West Chester Chamber of Commerce, and a support team for students considered at-risk, gifted, or needing extra help. She's forged relationships with a nearby senior citizen community and recruited volunteers to serve as tutors and mentors for students.
"We have to be at a high level — the public schools are at a high level, and we have to meet that," Egan said. "The parents today are smart consumers; they know what they want, and we have to provide it."
The job can be all-consuming, Egan said, and when families are struggling, particularly so. But spend five minutes with her in a classroom, and it's clear that Egan is in her element.
"On a tough day, you take the sadness home," she said. "But you take the joys home, too."
Egan's honor is a big deal for the small school, where pink pumpkins spelling out "We Love Mrs. Egan" line the sidewalk in front of the building. After the news of her prize was announced, students brought her flowers; parents grabbed her in the hallway for congratulatory hugs.
"I cried," Egan said. (She also promptly educated herself about the award's namesake, the secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan.)
And while she's looking forward to the awards ceremony, scheduled for Wednesday in Washington, Egan is also looking forward to returning to school.
"This is not about me," she said. "It's about the school and the community."