KIRTLAND — Between bouts of jovial and hearty laughter, Donald Hornbecker, principal of Kirtland Elementary School, said he was overwhelmed with emotion at being selected as New Mexico's National Distinguished Principal.

"When I first found out about it, I just sat there and stared at the paper," Hornbecker said. "I couldn't believe it. It's like winning the lottery. It's great."

Each year, the National Association of Elementary School Principals recognizes elementary and middle school principals who exhibit high standards for education, community involvement, instruction and student achievement. The association annually honors one elementary or middle school principal from each state.

Karen Jones, executive director of the New Mexico Association of Elementary School Principals, is a member of the committee that selected Hornbecker. During the selection process, she said that she looked for someone who was committed to the job.

"I think I was impressed by (Hornbecker's) actual dedication to the profession and leadership," Jones said.

This fall, Hornbecker will start his 30th year as an elementary school principal. He spent three years at the now-closed Nataani Nez Elementary in Shiprock before taking his position at Kirtland Elementary when the school opened in 1986. He has been the school's sole principal.

"I think what struck was they gave me a list of all the principals representing different states, and it hits you: I'm representing the whole state of New Mexico," Hornbecker said. "It's a huge honor. It's a huge responsibility when you think about it."

Hornbecker started his career with the Central Consolidated School District as a second-grade teacher at Ruth N. Bond Elementary School in Kirtland.

"Central schools has always been good to me and my family. I'm proud to work for them," Hornbecker said. "That's why I am still here."

One of the main reasons that Hornbecker has stayed at Kirtland Elementary is that the students, staff and parents in the community are dedicated to the school, he said.

"I look forward to coming to school every day and working with the students and my staff," Hornbecker said. "I have a fantastic staff to work with. My parents are very supportive in what we do. I enjoy coming to work and doing it. That's what kept me coming. I like what I do."

In October, he and his wife, Gloria, will travel to Washington D.C., for two days of activities to recognize the 50 principals honored this year by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

"This is starting my 30th year as an administrator. As for recognition, you don't get a lot," Hornbecker said. "When you get something like this, it's quite something."

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and jkellogg@daily-times.com. Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.