In the last year, Washington's troubled schools have become the beneficiaries of extraordinary corporate largess: Comsat gave Jefferson middle school $1.1 million for a science-math program; Philip Morris gave the school system $1 million; American Express, through the National Academy Foundation, is underwriting a public service academy in Anacostia; and Citicorp recently announced a gift of $2.3 million for nine schools over five years.

Almost unnoticed among the many gifts is the $1.9 million awarded over three years to three D.C schools in a national head-to-head competition sponsored by the RJR Nabisco Foundation. The money represents the largest competitive award ever made by a foundation in a single school district.

The money isn't really a gift; it is an award earned the old-fashioned way, by hard work. Washington's winning schools faced the stiffest competition in the country: 846 proposals were submitted, 39 schools were selected as finalists and 15 were finally identified as winners.

Who else won what are known as Next Century Schools awards? The picture is as varied as the country itself: an impoverished inner-city elementary school in Brooklyn, a wealthy high school in the Detroit suburbs, a small and desperately poor rural school of North Carolina, a school in San Diego with 70 ethnic groups -- and as many languages -- represented among its students.

What did it take to win? A willingness to be "china breakers," as foundation chairman Lou Gerstner characterized it. A willingness to run risks, to do the unconventional, to break with the past.

Two of Washington's winners should be familiar to most residents of the metropolitan area. The other is still on the drawing board.

Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts won a grant of approximately $200,000 per year for three years. With this money, Ellington will be able to put in place a "shepherding" program designed to reconnect teachers to students as counselors and mentors, insisting on high standards of performance while providing the moral support to meet them.

Another winner is Bell Multicultural High School, which is a private school that has gone public. Started more than a decade ago to serve the special needs of the heterogeneous Adams Morgan neighborhood, Bell's founder, Maria Tukeva, began in the private sector and has joined forces with the D.C. public schools to create a new kind of public school that builds on linguistic and cultural pluralism, treating it as an asset, not a liability.

And the third winner? A proposed magnet school of science, mathematics and technology, an idea that came out the superintendent's office and the Committee on Public Education, which issued its path-breaking report last year. The school would be modeled after the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, a magnet school in New York's Spanish Harlem. It would be fast-paced and demanding, meet year-round, offer an extended day and serve as a demonstration center for teaching and learning math and science.

The Manhattan Center was created by District 4 Superintendent Tony Alverado to give his "kids a school as good as Bronx Science." Housed in the old Benjamin Franklin High School (once one of the toughest inner-city high schools in the nation with an astonishing 93 percent dropout rate) the Manhattan Center now graduates all of its students, who go on to jobs or higher education.

If New York City can do it, so can the District.

The superintendent's office has appointed a committee to draft a final proposal for the magnet school, and the foundation has already given $30,000 for the planning. Just what form it would take remains to be seen. This final proposal must be as attractive as the initial one, or the District risks losing the balance of the money for this bold project. Unfortunately, the D.C. school board has been reluctant to support individual schools of excellence on the theory that all the schools must be improved at the same time -- an appealing idea that doesn't work.

The board now has a chance to support this math and science magnet, or it can hew to the status quo. An autonomous magnet school of science, mathematics and technology could be a beacon not just for Washington, but for the nation, a school we could all be proud of.

The Next Century Schools program is based on the premise that schools improve one building at a time. There are no quick fixes, just hard work.

The D.C. school board is right about one thing: it is a risk. But as the motto of Next Century Schools notes "the biggest risk is not taking one." -- Denis P. Doyle is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a member of the RJR Nabisco Foundation board.