NEW YORK — In 2000, less than half of the students at Keith L. Ware Elementary School in Fort Riley, Kan., could read at their grade level. Four years later, every student was at or above grade level, due to a series of sweeping changes that included fostering personal relationships with each child. For its inspirational and dramatic improvement, Ware Elementary was one of six U.S. schools to be recognized at the sixth annual National School Change Awards on July 14 at Fordham University.

“As Kansans, we have found the yellow brick road to success,” said Deb Gustafson, principal of Keith L. Ware Elementary upon accepting the award and a check for $5,000 in grant money for her school.

Launched by Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education in 2000, the award recognizes once-underperforming schools that have significantly improved their standing. The American Association of School Administrators and Pearson Education also sponsor the awards.

The students at Ware elementary live in a community with an 88 percent poverty rate, and an overwhelming majority of parents deployed in military operations overseas. Gustafson credited their turn-around to a “no-excuse” philosophy in the school, and structured interventions for poor student performance following quarterly assessments.

“There is no other award that recognizes a school that was once not performing well, that had the endurance and tenacity to make themselves not [only]a good school, but a great school,” said Lew Smith, Ph.D., a professor in the Graduate School of Education and director of the Fordham Center for Educational Research. “[These] schools raised the bar again and again, and the children achieved.”

According to Janet Ham, principal of Maplewood Elementary School in Indianapolis, Ind., her school was struggling with behavioral problems. In 2004, it had virtually eliminated suspensions and exponentially improved student performance on standardized tests.

The other schools recognized with the award were Don Pedro Albizu Campos (P.S. 161) in New York City, N.Y.; Cornelia F. Bradford Elementary (P.S. 16) in Jersey City, N.J.; Norview High School in Norfolk, Va.; and West Jasper Elementary School in Jasper, Ala.

In addition to the $5,000 grant, the winning schools receive entrance in a national research project and a local awards ceremony. The principal of each school is invited to participate in the 9th annual Principal Leadership Institute in New York City.

Founded in 1917, Fordham’s Graduate School of Education prepares teachers, administrators, counselors and psychologists through challenging academic programs that integrate theory with reflective and innovative practice. The school offers graduate programs at the University’s Bronx, Manhattan and Westchester campuses.