One of the buses for the kindergartners' field trip was late. No one could locate an interpreter to translate for a Chinese-speaking parent. And a first grader smashed his head on the playground - with no nurse on staff, was it a 911 call?

At the center of all this was the woman named the best principal in the country Monday - Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan, the high-energy leader of Andrew Jackson Elementary, a neighborhood public school at 13th and Federal Streets.

Kaplan handled the crises like a triage surgeon: locate the bus and a another parent who spoke Chinese, assess the first grader, then call 911 to be on the safe side. (The little guy has a nasty bruise but will be OK.)

And then, she gave herself a minute to bask in having captured the 2015 Escalante-Gradillas Prize for Best in Education.

"I could cry, I'm so excited," she said, and she did, a little. Then she smiled. "I don't do this for rewards - intrinsically, the job is so awesome. But I won't lie, I'm fatigued. It's a tough climate all over the city, and we fight hard for it not to steal our joy. To be nationally recognized, that reenergizes me."

The prize is named for Jamie Escalante and Henry Gradillas, the teacher and principal from the movie Stand and Deliver, and awarded by TheBestSchools.org, an organization that evaluates educational programs.

Two other Philadelphia educators were also finalists: Anthony Majewski, principal of Hill-Freedman World Academy, and Stacy Gill-Phillips, head of West Philadelphia Charter Elementary School.

Rich Tatum, spokesman for the Best Schools, said Kaplan reminded the judges very much of Escalante and Gradillas.

"They did more with less," Tatum said. "They had a very similar circumstance to what Lisa faces. They took a very underperforming school in an inner-city neighborhood that had historically driven away students, and they turned it around."

Six years ago, Jackson had 230 students and a tough reputation. Kaplan, who grew up in the neighborhood and was educated at Catholic schools, Temple University, and the Sorbonne in Paris, welcomed the challenge of her first principal's position after decades spent as a teacher, central office staffer, and assistant principal.

"Police came here every day," said Kaplan, 58. "When I first walked in, I was sad. I thought, 'How do people send their kids here every day?' "

With strong support from a growing cadre of parents devoted to public education and committed to the work of raising their neighborhood school, Kaplan got right to it. She focused on sprucing up a dreary building. She built partnerships, and persuaded teachers and students that Jackson could be a thriving place, a changed place.

"There are things that are non-negotiables for these kids," Kaplan said. "We became a force to be reckoned with. We do not allow budget cuts to affect what we do for kids."

The climate improved. Student achievement rose in a school that is truly of its neighborhood - 94 percent of students live below the poverty line; nearly 30 percent do not speak English as their first language.

The school's population swelled to 530. Realtors now boast of schools in the "Jackson catchment." People call Kaplan out of the blue to volunteer time, effort, and, sometimes, funds.

Art and music abound at the school, which has a nationally recognized rock band and partners with dozens of organizations and universities to expose its students to things generally reserved for private schools.

All of this improvement occurred in the context of perennial Philadelphia School District budget cuts. And all with the personable, organized, indefatigable Kaplan at the helm, managing the school through personnel losses and outdated textbooks and, this year, no nurse, so far.

She asks a great deal of her staff, Kaplan said, and in return she works harder than anyone to justify their dedication.

"You either get on the bus or you get run over," Kaplan said.

Jackson has scant staff turnover.

Kelli Mantell, an AmeriCorps staffer working at Jackson, spotted the application for the prize and nominated her. She's never known a leader like Kaplan, Mantell said.

"Lisa might already have 500 things to do, but she'll add another 100 to her schedule if it makes the kids' lives better," Mantell said. "She's the best."

Melissa Wilde, parent of two Jackson students and president of Friends of Jackson, said she is incredibly fortunate to have Kaplan at the school.

"She is largely responsible for turning the school around," Wilde said. "Without her in place, my husband and I, who are huge proponents of public education, would probably never have been able to consider this school for our kids."

The prize comes with $10,000 for Jackson and $10,000 for Kaplan personally. She won't see a dime of that money. She's donating it to Jackson, of course. How could she not? she asked.

"We're using older textbooks that I don't want to be using," she said. "We need anything we can get."

215-854-5146@newskag