Eleven years ago, a program called Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula began to encourage students to not only graduate high school, but also to succeed after graduation.
Mike Peterson, executive director, has been with the program for 10 years. He started as an instructional coach and became director in 2011. While high school graduation rates increased fairly quickly after the program began, he said, more recently post-secondary education enrollment has increased.
“Especially down the road with the kids that don’t attend college right out of high school, they’re coming back and talking to us a year, two years, three years later for reenrollment into some kind of post-secondary education whether it’s college or vocational school,” Peterson said.
Persisting in post-secondary education after enrollment has also increased, he said.
The program works with students from seven Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Schools — Nanwalek, Nikolaevsk, Ninilchik, Port Graham, Razdolna, Tebughna in Tyonek and Voznesenka.
Twenty-one students from those villages began the two-week summer institute program through Project GRAD at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kachemak Bay Campus in Homer on Monday.
For morning sessions, students got to choose from robotics, radio journalism and making a difference — a language arts and communications course. In the afternoon, students take painting, fitness or team building.
“The idea is that it’s held on the college campus,” Peterson said. “They feel comfortable being on the campus; that it’s not some scary place.”
About 16 students are taking part in the dorm life living program after spending the day at KBC. The student stay overnight in a house rented by the program and learn about budgeting, meal planning, time management and communal living.
Randall Jones, who will be a junior in the fall in Tyonek, said he is enjoying dorm life.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s like your own house so you have to clean up and do chores and it’s really cool. “It teaches to take care of your stuff.”
Jones attended summer institute last year and said along with the classes and dorm life learning, he also learned about the Russian Old Believer culture from students who lived in those villages.
Prior attending summer institute, Elizabeth Ukatish, tribal liaison, said many students and their parents are apprehensive about breaking away from village life for two weeks.
“But when (the students) come back, the parents are like, ‘Holy cow, my kid learned so much and has stepped up so much and is learning to stand on their own two feet,’” Ukatish said.
Tim Haller, who will be a high school junior, said he was nervous when he went to his first summer institute last year. The Selodvia teen used to be quiet, but has since become more outgoing and a leader within his community.
Port Graham teen Rick Jager, who will be a sophomore in the fall, said his first summer institute experience is going well and he is meeting a lot of new people.
“Project GRAD has actually helped me become more socialized,” he said.
LaBri Estraba, who will be a junior at Ninilchik School next year, is attending her second summer institute. She said it’s fun seeing old friends and meeting new people.
“(Project GRAD) encourages you to step out of your comfort zone,” Estraba said. “I know not everybody wants to do that, but when they try it, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is actually OK.’”
If students complete two summer institutes or the equivalent and maintain a 2.5 grade point average, they qualify for a $4,000 scholarship. So far, Project GRAD has given $432,000 in scholarship funds.
Project GRAD also sponsors tours to in-state universities, colleges and vocational schools. Staff works with students through application processes and mentor sstudents through college.
Peterson said the program has shifted during the past five years to also provide outside-the-classroom skills such as leadership, being comfortable in unfamiliar settings and people skills.
“We work with schools where culture is very big whether is a Native village or a Russian Old Believer village,” he said. “It’s always different when you pick up and go to school either in Anchorage or even just in Homer.”
He said the program has worked on teaching more of the out-of-the-classroom skills with more weekend institutes. At the leadership institute students meet and learn from not only CEOs but also student leaders of University of Alaska Anchorage organizations. Through the career institute, Project GRAD students job shadow someone who works in the field they are possibly interested in perusing. At phlight club institute, students learn practical skills like building a support system, identifying strengths and giving back.
While Project GRAD programs exist throughout the U.S., Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula is the only one in Alaska.
In his 10 years with the program, Peterson said he has worked with some students since early elementary school and he’s enjoyed watching them grow.
“It puts a smile on my face,” he said.