Look at Claude Moten, with his neat beard and curly perm, and you might guess him to be a middle-aged pop singer. Listen to him spout his Jesse Jackson-like quips and aphorisms, and you might think Baptist preacher.

But spend a little time at Kelly Miller Junior High, in Washington's far Northeast, and you will figure Moten for what he is: an unusually effective public school principal.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is telling us again this week that minority students are lagging far behind their white classmates. Social scientists are trying to figure out what combination of race and socioeconomics accounts for the gap, and educators are wondering what special programs will help close it.

And Kelly Miller is asking: Gap? What gap?

This all-black school, whose students come from families of modest means, including a significant group of public housing families, is among the city's leaders in achievement scores. The last reporting period showed Miller's 8th graders averaging 9.4 (4th month of the ninth grade) in math and 9.0 in reading. Ninth grade averages were 11.1 in math and 11.4 in reading.

That is the average for the whole school. Scores for the students in the Kelly Miller humanities program for the talented and gifted (TAG) averaged 12.9 for eighth grade and 13.6 for ninth.

By what alchemy does Moten transform this unlikely school in this unpromising part of town into a hotbed of excellence? I've just come from a visit to the school, and I have to tell you honestly: I don't know. More disappointingly, Moten doesn't know either.

He'll tell you about his curriculum review and his in-house tutoring classes to help youngsters in the transition from less-demanding elementary schools to the no-nonsense Kelly Miller, and he'll show you the room upstairs with its banks of personal computers for teaching reading and math. But you get the sense that he doesn't really believe that is what makes the difference.

As all good principals do, he'll boast of his staff, but the likelihood is that the same staff would be less successful with a different principal.

He'll talk with great enthusiasm about his special program for talented and gifted students. Some educators worry that special programs for the brightest students have the effect of writing off the less bright, creating academic ghettos. Moten sees it differently. "The humanities program creates a healthy competition," he says. "We have a waiting list of youngsters just below the TAG group who are eager to prove that they are just as bright."

Moten also speaks unabashedly of his efforts to improve test scores directly. He has had testing experts from as far away as New York come down to help his students and staff understand the intricacies of test-taking. The idea, he says, is to get his youngsters over their test anxiety so that can get credit for the knowledge they possess.

But there are principals all over town -- all over the country -- doing many of the same things without anything approaching Moten's success. What accounts for the difference?

The answer may be as simple as it is unhelpful: that Claude Moten believes his youngsters can learn, and is able to infect his staff with that belief.

He may embarrass his students a bit with his reminders about their personal grooming, or amuse them a little with his jokes about studying hard so they won't have to beg for "mercy Ds," but he manages to get them believing from the beginning that there is something special about being at Kelly Miller, and that that specialness demands hard work on their part.

It's easy enough to say these things, but not everybody can make the words come alive.

Claude Moten can.