Project GRAD USA has officially arrived on the Kenai Peninsula.
The Houston-based school reform program kicked off its partnership with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District during a ceremony Wednesday at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School.
"As we've grown in this partnership, I can only tell you I feel more and more positive each day with what is happening," said Donna Peterson, the district's superintendent. "The magic that's going to happen in the seven schools (that will participate in the program) is going to be so contagious."
The program, which partners with school districts and communities to provide staff development, curriculum consistency, community support and graduation incentives for students, will be implemented this fall in kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools in Nanwalek, Nikolaevsk, Ninilchik, Port Graham, Razdolna, Tyonek and Voznesenka.
The goal is not only to improve student achievement and give students the tools to continue in post-secondary education, but also to address the challenges the district faces in its smallest schools, Peterson said. These challenges include high staff turnover rates, low student achievement and community issues, she said.
"Maybe we face those challenges at all schools, but we know they're at the small schools," Peterson said.
Robert Rivera, chief operating officer for Project GRAD USA, agreed.
"I think Dr. Peterson was right. Conditions in urban schools are similar to rural schools," he said.
And while Project GRAD has been implemented primarily in urban schools in the past, he said the program still will fit the rural settings on the peninsula.
"The setting is different, but some things are similar," he said, adding the program will function much as it does in its 198 locations in 10 cities nationwide, with only a few modifications.
Project GRAD USA Chief Operating Officer Robert Rivers describes the opportunities the program affords students.
Photo by Phil Hermanek
"We want to build the local capacity much quicker."
He said the program will provide one teacher in each of the schools to help implement the program. Other modifications will include replacing the standard full-time social worker usually placed in each participating school with a half-time local person to provide community support.
The other components of the program will remain the same.
Project GRAD USA provides some funding, in addition to staff training and curriculum materials. However, local communities also are responsible for contributing to the program's success. Communities form a nonprofit organization and board of directors to deal with policy and funding issues, and the nonprofit group is responsible for garnering community support and raising about 50 percent of the money for graduation incentives.
These incentives are one of the major boons of the program, according to parents and students.
Students who successfully complete the Project GRAD curriculum by maintaining good grades and participating in reading, math and post-secondary education preparation activities, graduate from high school with about $4,000 in scholarships for either college or vocational training.
"When I was a freshman, everybody preached, 'The sky's the limit, go to school, do it,'" said Izamara Gamez, a graduate of Project GRAD's debut program in Houston. "Nobody gave us the tools to do it like Project GRAD."
Gamez said she was among a group of students who weren't expected to go to college, or even graduate from high school. She credits Project GRAD for her success. With the incentives the program provided, she said she gained not only $4,000 for college, but also the confidence and skills to succeed. Though her family could not afford to send her to college on their own, Gamez graduated high school No. 1 in her class with scholarships and a choice of four high-profile schools. She earned a degree in psychology from Rice University and now works as a recruiter for the University of Houston.
"I'll be talking to you soon," she said, looking at a group of Ninilchik freshmen sitting in the crowd.
Kalica Kalugin, one of the Ninilchik freshmen who will be among the first class of Project GRAD graduates on the peninsula, said she is excited about the doors the program will open to her and her peers.
"I really want to go to college, to a good college," she said. "I want to be a flight attendant, or maybe even a nurse."
She said the program increases her chances to do just that.
Jamie Leman of Ninilchik said that as a parent, as well as an educator, she believes the program will be a tremendous asset to students, especially in terms of the financial support.
"As a parent, I'm thrilled to see Project GRAD on the peninsula," she said. "As an educator, I'm excited for the opportunity for my students to go to college.
"Four-thousand dollars can be the difference between going and not going."
Parents, students and district officials aren't the only ones excited about the program, though. Community members already have signed up to be part of the local board of directors, and some businesses already are on board to support the program.
In addition, state leaders also are anxiously watching to see what happens with the partnership. Terry Campbell with the Alaska Depart-ment of Education and Early Development was at the ceremony Wednesday and said the department is supportive of the program, especially in light of federal No Child Left Behind legislation that increases accountability requirements for schools.
Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, a graduate of Ninilchik High School himself, sent a video congratulating the district on the partnership and wishing luck to the participating students.
And Sen. Ted Stevens, a longtime supporter of the program, sent a letter celebrating its implementation in an Alaska school district.
"I don't know if you're aware of it, but Sen. Stevens is a longtime ally of our organization," Rivera said. "From the beginning, he has encouraged us well, I guess it's a little stronger than that to make something happen in Alaska."
Now that it's happening, the Kenai Peninsula, and the state as a whole, can only benefit, Stevens wrote.
"When you see and we see students ... embarking on lives that enrich and strengthen our communities, all of us will be thankful," he wrote.
The ceremony Wednesday closed with representatives from Project GRAD, the district, EED, community groups, students and parents signing an oversize memorandum of agreement, followed by students from Ninilchik unveiling the Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula banner.
"The unrolling of this banner officially signals the start of Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula," Project GRAD site consultant Heather Pancratz said amid a room full of cheers.
What happens next?
The next step in the partnership between Project GRAD USA and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will be a series of community gatherings, announcing the implementation of the program in seven rural communities on the peninsula.
Kick-off ceremonies took place in Ninilchik and Tyonek on Wednesday.
Today, there will be events in Nanwalek at 11 a.m. and Port Graham at 3 p.m.
On Friday, ceremonies will take place at Nikolaevsk at 9 a.m., Razdolna at 11:30 a.m. and Voznesenka at 1:30 p.m.
The public is invited to attend these gatherings to learn more about Project GRAD and what it means to Kenai Peninsula communities.
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