PAONIA — Being tucked away in the mountains can have its advantages especially to the people who live in Paonia. The town of about 1,500 residents sits on the Western slope and is surrounded by orchards and farms.

“It’s a pretty small little town but basically you know everyone,” said 11-year-old Brooke Harding. “You’ll be walking down the street and say hi to five or six people that you know.”

Harding goes to at Paonia Elementary, a K-6 school that has about 185 students. They say that small town feel gives them an advantage in the classroom.

“We get to know every kid on a first name basis,” said Principal Sam Cox. “We get to know some of their family background, know some of their success and challenges are in school and that helps me work with the kids as well as helps the teachers.”

Help for teachers like Robert Bushta who teaches math to students in the 4th and 6th grades.

“I get them when they’re kind of fresh and still learning and I can actually watch them from year to year,” said Bushta. “By the time I get to see them that third year, it’s really fun. I almost hate to see them go.”

Bushta said the advantage of working in a smaller school helps him focus on individual student needs three years in a row.

“I know where I can help them to learn the best and so by the time I get them in the 6th grade, it's magic.

That relationship building is part of the reason why the school won the Succeeds Prize for Transformational Impact in elementary education. The award was created in collaboration with Colorado Succeeds, 9NEWS, mindSpark Learning and the last three Governors.

MORE | The Succeeds Prize announces winners of $150,000 for Colorado schools

Together they presented The Succeeds Prize to Colorado public schools and educators that showed transformational impact in education.

A total of $150,000 was awarded with the hope the winners will share their best practices with other schools in Colorado.

A data-driven process was used to identify and award innovative public schools in Colorado.

“The fact is our kids are growing and some other entity in the state looked at our data and saw what we were seeing and that was exciting,” said Bushta.

“It was just an amazing experience,” said Harding. “Our little town, our little school here getting recognized for that big award. It’s just so cool.”

Their success is making it difficult for this tight-knit community to keep their little secret about the elementary school down the road that’s doing great things.

“There are high-quality schools that we were matched up with and for us to be selected, small school,small county, it was a really big deal,” said Cox.

For more information about The Succeeds Prize, go to