U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings stopped by yesterday morning at a North Philadelphia school, in a neighborhood where drug dealers are a regular fixture and where nearly all the students qualify for free lunch, to congratulate the 416 students and faculty.

"The eyes of the nation are on you and your good work . . . Bravo!" Spellings said during her visit to M. Hall Stanton Elementary.

Spellings was in town to mark the fifth anniversary of the federal No Child Left Behind law and the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

She visited Stanton, 16th Street near Huntingdon, because the school, led by Principal Barbara Adderley, is embracing and meeting the mandates of the federal law like few others.

From the auditorium stage Spellings noted - as Adderley and schools chief Paul Vallas listened - Stanton's impressive progress since the inception of the law, which calls for all students to read and do math on grade level by 2014.

In reading, the school's third- and fifth-graders went from 12.2 percent scoring at the advanced or proficient levels on the state's exams in 2002 to 65.5 percent this year.

In math, 76.6 percent of students scored at advanced or proficient levels, compared to the 20.7 percent who did in 2002.

Those numbers, Spellings said, shatter myths held by some people that students from inner-city schools cannot learn.

"I reject that, Barbara Adderley rejects that. That is why she got the award," Spellings said, alluding to a national award the school received this fall in Washington for its successful academic strategies.

Adderley said that stressing reading and writing in all subjects and the constant gathering and studying of student data have been keys to her school's success.

And instead of cramming for state tests, she said, students are taught throughout the year the subject matter on which they are tested.

"No Child Left Behind has made us all more accountable," said Adderley, who has led the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school for six years. "It's made us all know that we must be accountable for every child."

During yesterday's ceremony some of Stanton's top sixth-graders received star treatment. Rafik Johnson, 11, received a trophy for attaining a perfect score on the state math exam last year, and Malik Walker, 11, got a trophy for general academic excellence.

Kaitlyn Lindsay, 11, received the Bronze President's Volunteer Service Award for her work at the Clara Baldwin Nursing Facility.

President Bush is lobbying Congress to renew No Child Left Behind, which mandates that all teachers be "highly qualified" and which requires failing schools to provide students with private tutoring and transfers to better schools.

Vallas said he supports the law, but believes its mandates should come with more federal funding. Since the law's inception, the percentage of highly qualified Philadelphia district teachers has risen to 92 percent, about a 10 percent increase said, Tomas Hanna, senior vice president for Human Resources.

About 750 teachers have been terminated for failing to reach the goal in time, he said. *