Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula is off and running, hiring staff, implementing programs and reaching out to students in seven "at risk" schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, organizers said Thursday.
The Houston-based reform program, which was expanded to the peninsula starting this fall, uses money from the national foundation, as well as funds raised locally, to bring curriculum development and staff support to schools and to provide scholarships for graduates of the program to attend college or vocational institutions.
The program is implemented slowly, according to Stephanie Smith-Arce, the national director of site support and new site expansion, who was on the peninsula last week.
Implementation starts with classroom management training for teachers, followed by adoption of a math curriculum and later a reading program. Supporting staff members are hired as the process develops, and the first scholarships are awarded four years into the program.
That means success stories might not be immediate, but they will come, she said.
"The components take three to five years to implement, so it's not overnight," she said. "I think each community is served a little different, especially in this situation."
The Kenai Peninsula is the first Project GRAD site in Alaska, and the program's first venture into rural schools. The local effort is focused on schools in Ninilchik, Nikolaevsk, Razdolna, Voznesenka, Port Graham, Nanwalek and Tyonek.
Heather Pancratz, executive director of the local effort, said the program is taking hold already.
Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula has not only an executive director, but also an office manager, public relations and development manager and three "coaches" who help teachers in participating schools.
Pancratz said more coaches will be hired this spring, and a math curriculum manager will be hired this summer. In the meantime, teachers at participating schools already have undergone training in the program's classroom management techniques, and the math curriculum will be taught in the coming months.
"It's the math curriculum piece teachers and principals are most excited about," Pancratz said.
Smith-Arce added that she expects to see noticeable improvement in math test scores within the first couple years.
Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula also has started making changes in the way students at participating schools look at education.
The program's first summer institute will start this year students are required to participate in at least two summer institutes during high school to receive a scholarship and Project GRAD started bringing College Days to participating schools earlier this month.
"We see changes in the (school) culture right away with the College Days, summer institutes, etcetera," Smith-Arce said.
One of Project GRAD's goals is to increase the number of students who complete high school and go on to attend post-secondary education, be it college or vocational school. In fact, GRAD stands for Graduation Really Achieves Dreams the motto of the program.
Michael Hawfield, the public relations and development manager for Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula, said the program has a proven track record of success in that vein and that's what drew him to the program.
A historian by trade, Hawfield said he chose to join Project GRAD's ranks because of its success.
"It's not a new thing blowing in from the East that may be wishful thinking," he said. "They have a solid track record of success and the ability to expand from city schools to others. This rural model demonstrates the flexibility of the concept. ... There's a huge strength to that. There's always strength in flexibility and open-mindedness."
Smith-Arce said Project GRAD USA plans to bring that flexibility to even more sites as time goes on. Currently serving 12 school districts or cities, the national organization has prospective sites in New Orleans, San Antonio and Philadelphia, as well as smaller communities Mississippi and West Virginia, she said.
The program also may eventually spread within the Kenai Penin-sula district and other sites in Alaska.
However, Pancratz added, that, too, will take time.
"What we've talked with the district about is establishing ourselves for the first three years, then exploring the possibility of helping support other schools," she said.
"We definitely want to make sure we are a strong site serving these seven first, though, before we look at expanding."
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