Beacon Heights Elementary School in Riverdale, a school that six years ago had been placed on the state's watch list for low standardized-test scores, was named a high-performing national "Blue Ribbon" school by the U.S. Department of Education last week.

Beacon Heights was among more than 250 schools throughout the country chosen for the 2004 No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon Award for making significant progress in closing the achievement gap or having students who consistently achieved at very high levels, U.S. Department of Education officials said.

"The students and staff at Beacon Heights have done an excellent job in working together to improve their school," Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby said in a written statement. "I am proud of this school and what they have accomplished through dedication and hard work."

Five other schools in Maryland received the honor, one each in Montgomery, Howard, Baltimore, Caroline and Worcester counties.

"It proves we have great schools in our cities, in our suburbs and in our rural communities," said Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick in a statement announcing the winners. "There is excellent instruction taking place in classrooms located all over Maryland, and it is up to each of us to maintain that legacy of excellence."

Virginia had six winners and the District three.

Beacon Heights Principal Mary Walker said she was elated by the news.

In 1998, only 27 percent of the students scored satisfactorily on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) test, a key measure that has since been replaced by the Maryland School Assessment exams. The low test scores landed Beacon Heights on the state's list of "reconstitution-eligible" schools that year, which put it at risk of being taken over by the state.

What made the school particularly challenging, Walker said, was the student population, with 80 percent of the 370 students eligible for free and reduced-priced lunches, a key indicator of poverty.

Also, 40 percent have limited-English-speaking skills. Ninety-four percent are African American or Hispanic, two groups that traditionally have trailed their white and Asian classmates on standardized tests. And students regularly move in and out of the school's attendance zone, making for a highly mobile group of children.

Walker arrived just days before the school was placed on the watch list, a designation that resulted in additional money for the school to pay for academic initiatives.

With that money, Walker hired additional teachers for kindergarten through third grade, reducing class sizes from 25 to as few as 15 to 18 students. She started an after-school program to help boost student achievement, set up a computer lab, offered pre-kindergarten classes and hired a veteran teacher to mentor new teachers, particularly the handful of provisionally certified instructors she had at the time.

She also revamped the reading curriculum, asking teachers to focus on phonics, the basics of reading.

"It's a team effort. It's not something I did myself. It's not a one-man show," Walker said.

To figure out what material they needed to emphasize in the classroom, the staff regularly tested students to see how they were progressing, a practice they continue today, Walker said. "We closely look at our data and we look at our strengths and weaknesses, and those are the areas we focus on," she said.

In 2001, 43 percent of the students at Beacon Heights scored satisfactorily on the MSPAP -- 1 percent less than the statewide average, enough to get the school off the watch list. On the new Maryland School Assessment exams, Beacon Heights has met benchmarks among all its racial and ethnic groups in both reading and math.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires students in all racial and ethnic groups, as well as those students receiving services such as special education, to meet benchmarks in reading and math.