FREMONT -- Some believe movies and sports are popular because surprising turnarounds and underdog victories in real life, sadly, are so rare.

Don't tell that to the staff and students at J. Haley Durham Elementary. In just three years, they have transformed a chronically underperforming school into a winner of the prestigious National Blue Ribbon Schools Award. The U.S. Department of Education this week awarded the honor to the 450-student, K-6 school.

The award is given to schools whose students perform at very high levels or where significant improvements are made in academic achievement.

That accolade comes less than a year after Durham was named a California Distinguished School.

James Morris, Fremont's superintendent of schools, praised Principal Teresa Bonaccorsi for leading the quick turnaround.

"When Teresa became principal, she got the staff on board, and they have done an incredible job," he said. "You feel the pride in that school when you go there for what they've accomplished."

It hasn't always been like that.

Just five years ago, in fact, Durham was Fremont's lowest-performing school. As recently as 2009, it was in "Program Improvement," which means it did not meet its test-score targets for two consecutive years. That designation gave parents the option of removing their children from the school.

"But our parents chose to stay and work with us and continue to believe in us," said Bonaccorsi, who became principal in early 2010.

That faith, seemingly, has been rewarded.

Although nearly 50 percent of its students live below the poverty line, Durham has raised its Academic Performance Index (API) test score 129 points in the past three years, including a 10-point increase this year from last year.

School district officials credited Bonaccorsi and her teachers with employing data-driven strategies to properly identify students' needs in order to improve their academic achievement.

"They have strong leaders and a clear plan of taking a look at where a student is doing well or not well, and then providing student tutoring and motivation," Morris said. "They just don't let a student fail."

Bonaccorsi said the key to the school's success is her staff's dedication, team spirit and willingness to work with the children.

"We work on the head and the heart," she said. "The head part is the skills, and the heart part is having the will to do it. You can't work on one without the other, and it has snowballed into something beautiful."

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.

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