The U.S. Department of Education has named eight Minnesota schools — including six from Brainerd — as National Blue Ribbon Schools, an honor awarded to the nation's best-performing schools.

The designation is one of the highest honors handed out by the federal education department. The recognition is given to schools that are making significant strides in closing achievement gaps between white and minority students and those with the best overall performance.

Minnesota schools picking up the designation for overall excellence include: Battle Lake Secondary in the Battle Lake School District; and Baxter, Lowell and Nisswa elementary schools, all in the Brainerd Public School District.

For their efforts in closing the achievement gap, the Blue Ribbon schools in Minnesota are: Atwater Cosmos Grove City Elementary; and Garfield, Riverside and Harrison Elementary, all from Brainerd.

It is unusual for a school district to pick up so many designations in one award cycle. But the Brainerd Public School District did just that. Every elementary school in the district was named a National Blue Ribbon School on Tuesday

"We're seeing something unique in this year's winners — multiple winning schools from a single district in a single year, or in recent years," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. "That tells us these schools have figured out something special and important: how to move the needle not for just the kids in one school, but for kids in schools across the district."

Brainerd school leaders have cited the district's intense focus on making sure every student reads well by third grade as one of the reasons that the district was recognized by the federal government.

"We could not be more excited with the affirmation of the quality of our schools," Brainerd Superintendent Klint Willert said. "We all celebrate the unique and diverse ways in which our elementary schools are effective in meeting the needs of our young people. These awards attest to the amazing educational opportunities provided and supported every day by the wonderful staff and community of the Brainerd Public Schools."

More than 330 schools received the National Blue Ribbon School Award on Tuesday. More than 7,000 schools have been named Blue Ribbon schools since the program was launched in 1982.

"These great schools are fulfilling the promise of American education — that all students, no matter their name or ZIP code, can flourish when schools provide safe, creative and challenging learning environments," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469