Rural education gets good news

Posted: Wednesday, July 30, 2003

A program designed to help underachieving students in urban school districts may be the ticket to success for some of the Kenai Peninsula's most rural schools.

Project GRAD USA, a Houston-based program that offers a wide range of educational options and incentives for participating schools, kicked off its involvement with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District on Tuesday at an informational breakfast held at the Timberwolf Lodge in Soldotna.

The breakfast brought representatives from Project GRAD together with area business and educational leaders in order to begin the process of implementing the program at seven rural district schools this fall.

According to Project GRAD director of local site development, Eric Graves, the breakfast was designed to begin what will hopefully be a long and fruitful partnership between the community and the project.

"We need your advice, we need your counsel, we need your input and we need your help," Graves said.

Among other things, Graves said the program will initially offer $4,000 scholarships for students who graduate from high school in Nikolaevsk, Voznesenka, Nanwalek, Port Graham, Razdolna, Tyonek and Ninilchik.

That's not all the program aims to do.

Graves said Project GRAD was initially designed to help students in one of the worst high schools in the city of Houston. By combining what already was available at the school with aggressive new language, math and discipline regimens, the project succeeded in dramatically raising both standardized test scores and college enrollment at the school.

Graves said the program has now spread to 198 schools in 10 cities nationwide and serves more than 130,000 students.

The school district recently entered into a partnership with Project GRAD to bring its unique program to Alaska. District superintendent Donna Peterson spoke at Tuesday's breakfast. She said she believes the program is just what some of the district's more rural schools need to boost achievement and college attendance rates.

"We are thrilled to be the entity starting this in Alaska," Peterson said.

She predicted Project GRAD will become a cornerstone of education in the rural schools.

"It's the future," she said. "It will be what we're about in these seven communities for a long time."

Tyonek, a small village on the west side of Cook Inlet, is one of the communities that will initially be supported by the project. Accord-ing to Tyonek Native Corporation Chief Executive Officer Bart Garber, the program looks promising from the standpoint that it could help to send more village students on to college and eventually into professional careers.

"I view Project GRAD as a means to create a spark in Tyonek," he said.

Garber said the village is plagued by a lack of students moving beyond a high school education. He said he believes any program that can send more Tyonek youth into higher learning will benefit the community in the long run.

"My community is looking for something like this," he said.

Although many people spoke highly of the program Tuesday, it'll take more than talk to get Project GRAD up and running.

Graves said the project provides about a quarter of the funding for the program, while the school district will be expected to chip in around 30 percent of the cost in in-kind services. The other 50 percent, Graves said, will have to be raised by a local nonprofit organization, which must be established for the program to go forward.

He said the anticipated cost of the project, which will run for at least 12 years, will cost roughly $3.9 million. The project runs for so long, he said, because its aim is to follow students from primary school through high school, then give them financial and other support once they're in college.

"We're not going away," he said.

The $3.9 million does not have to be raised immediately. The program will first start by offering scholarships to incoming freshmen at the seven communities. If the students graduate, they'll be eligible for the $4,000 scholarships.

Eventually, however, Graves said the program will become a much more inclusive and comprehensive program that has been proven to improve overall education levels wherever its been tried.

"You can expect improved grades and higher achievement test scores," he said. "... It will work here in Alaska with Native Alaskans and in the old believer villages."

Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, who grew up in Ninilchik, said Tuesday he believes Project GRAD can become a positive force not only in his hometown but across the entire borough.

"I am convinced this is going to be an investment that's well worthwhile," Leman said.

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