The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has a new way to help students at small, rural schools succeed.
The district has established a partnership with Project GRAD USA, a Houston-based school reform program that offers staff development, curriculum consistency and graduation incentives for participating schools.
The program will be implemented this fall in kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools in seven area communities, including Nanwalek, Nikolaevsk, Ninilchik, Port Graham, Razdolna, Tyonek and Voznesenka.
District Superintendent Donna Peterson said the program is a perfect match for the more rural schools on the peninsula, despite its prevalent history with urban schools.
The program, she said, fits well with the district's long-term goals and will provide much-needed resources.
"The further we got into the partnership, the more we realized this is not only a good thing, it's something that needed to happen immediately," Peterson said.
"We've spent a lot of time trying to do good things for students, despite resources issues. It's rare to find a match with something ready made. We don't have to start from scratch."
The partnership also offers a new opportunity for Project GRAD. The program started in Houston in 1988 and has since spread to 10 cities across the country. The more rural setting of Alaska provides a whole new outlet for the program, though.
"We're really a microcosm of the state of Alaska," said Rick Matiya, the district's director of federal programs and small schools. "This is a good entry place for Project GRAD to come in and prove successful in a place that looks a lot like the state of Alaska."
Though the program wasn't originally designed for rural, K-12 schools, it fits well, offering solutions to problems such as high teacher turnover rates and curriculum inconsistencies, he said.
Tycene P. Edd, the new sites implementation coordinator for Project GRAD USA, was on the peninsula Wednesday and provided an overview of the program.
The program serves about 130,000 students across the country and is growing every day, Edd said. It initially was designed to bolster student achievement, graduation rates and college attendance, especially in low-income communities with fewer resources. And, she said, it has been tremendously successful. In participating Houston schools, for example, the number of students going on to college has increased 62 percent over 12 years, she said.
"It's exciting, and it works," she said.
She explained that the program is a "comprehensive, whole-school report initiative" designed to focus heavily on community and parent involvement.
From the beginning, the program requires community buy-in, she said. Project GRAD must be invited into a community, and residents, teachers, administrators and school board members must vote to approve its implementation.
Also, while Project GRAD USA provides some funding, in addition to staff training and curriculum materials, the community is responsible for contributing to the program's success. A nonprofit organization and board of directors must be formed to deal with policy and funding issues, and the nonprofit is responsible for garnering community support and raising about 50 percent of the money for graduation incentives.
The graduation incentives are a major component of the program. Each student who successfully completes the Project GRAD curriculum and graduates from high school is awarded a $4,000 scholarship -- payable at $1,000 per year for four years -- to attend an institute of higher education.
The students aren't just handed the awards, though.
They must fully participate and succeed in the curriculum components of the program. Those components include:
n Success for All (SFA), a literacy program that requires all students to experience 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading a day, with 20-minute tutorials scheduled throughout the day. SFA focuses on early intervention to overcome reading problems and involves cooperative student learning activities and parent involvement. According to a summary of the program, Project GRAD supports implementation of SFA with on-site reading consultants and a site reading manager, as well as training, support and materials.
n MOVE IT Math USA, a child-centered math experience developed at the University of Houston. The program uses a variety of teaching tools to boost students' basic skills as well as conceptual understanding of math.
n Consistency Management an Cooperative Discipline, a program designed to help students achieve self-discipline and responsibility. Students become partners in their education, sharing responsibility with teachers and creating a classroom constitution to establish rules, consequences and rewards. CMCD also focuses on value-based discipline and increased communication with parents.
n Communities in Schools, a program providing campus-based social services and parent involvement staff. Project GRAD provides a CIS staff person in each school to help at-risk children, increase parent involvement, provide counseling and coordinate mentoring programs.
As they move through the curriculum, students also must be committed to participating in their education and succeeding. In order to receive their scholarships, students must graduate with an overall grade point average of at least 2.5 and, during their high school years, must attend two, four-week summer college preparatory sessions.
Edd noted that some parts of the program will have to be adapted for the Kenai Peninsula. For example, she said Project GRAD usually works on a feeder system, meaning it is implemented in several elementary schools that filter students into a couple of middle schools then a high school. Here, however, the program will be implemented in seven separate, self-contained buildings. And while that will mean more consistency for students, it also may mean more effort will be needed to make sure each building has all the resources it needs.
Challenges aside, though, both Project GRAD staff and district officials said they are excited to get the program up and going.
The seven participating schools already have voted in favor of the program, and the school board approved its implementation at the June 2 board meeting. Heather Pancratz of Homer has been hired as the local new site consultant and is working to introduce the program to the community and establish the board and nonprofit organization.
"We're looking for people who are passionate about education and about doing more with less," she said. "We need people with energy and an interest in helping make the program work at the different sites. Each community has its own personality, and the board should be comprised of people who will help champion the cause, understand the communities, understand what the school board is working with and help draw in corporate financial support."
Pancratz already is planning a brunch July 29 for area business leaders to kick off the fund-raising drive, as well as a program kick-off Sept. 3 for parents and students at the selected schools. The program will be implemented in stages, but most will be in place when school starts in the fall. Students entering ninth grade this fall at the participating schools will be the first generation of Kenai Peninsula students eligible for the graduation incentives, and the Project GRAD organization has committed to at least 12 years with the district.
"This isn't on the horizon," Matiya said. "It's under way now."
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