Seven rural villages on the Kenai Peninsula welcomed Project GRAD USA to their schools last week with community gatherings. But while the ceremony was similar at each of the sites, the school reform program will face different challenges in each of the communities.
Project GRAD USA is a Houston-based school reform program that works with school districts and communities across the nation to improve student achievement and encourage high school graduation and secondary education for each student.
The national program has teamed with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to form Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula, which will include a board of directors and a nonprofit organization to bring additional staff and resources, as well as monetary graduation incentives, to students in Nan-walek, Nikolaevsk, Ninilchik, Port Graham, Razdolna, Tyonek and Voz-nesenka.
During a districtwide kickoff ceremony Wednesday, superintendent Donna Peterson said the program will help target the small schools' shared challenges: high staff turnover rates, low student achievement scores and community issues.
But as representatives from the national and local Project GRAD groups visited each community last week, it was clear the individual schools each face their own issues and will garner different benefits from the program.
"In every community, there's something positive," said Heather Pancratz, site coordinator for Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula. "Each community is unique in how it's positive.
"I'm not worried about any of them. I'm just trying to figure out how to meet each of their needs."
For example, Mike Weatherbee, principal in Ninilchik, said his school has little in common with the other rural schools where the program will be implemented this fall.
Though Ninilchik originally was founded as a Russian Orthodox-Native Alaska village more than 150 years ago, the present-day community on the Sterling Highway between Soldotna and Homer is in many ways more contemporary than its more isolated counterparts across the peninsula.
Both Russian Orthodox and Native traditions remain in the community, but the Old Believer traditions are not especially noticeable in the school and the majority of residents are not Native.
With 183 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, Ninilchik is one of the larger schools to implement Project GRAD, and the school is nowhere near "failing." It made adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act last year with 91 percent of its students testing proficient in language arts and 73 percent proficient in math. Those scores are well above the minimum standards.
Still, Weatherbee said the school faces plenty of challenges, especially the shortage of resources that comes with declining enrollment and the subsequent funding shortages.
For example, the school no longer has a counselor due to budget cuts, and Weatherbee and other teachers are filling in with the scheduling and guidance duties. Staff members, parents and community members also would like to have more choices of elective classes, but the bare-bones budget allows for few such courses.
Project GRAD will help by brining more resources to the school, Weatherbee said.
"I see us having more impact with direct delivery education at the elementary level, especially in math and reading," he said.
The scholarship counselor that the program provides at participating schools also will take the responsibility off him and teachers, allowing them to do more in their regular jobs and provide help for students interested in post-secondary education, he said.
The $4,000 in scholarships that the program promises for each student who graduates high school while meeting the Project GRAD requirements maintaining a 2.5 cumulative grade point average in high school, attending two weeks worth of summer institutes through an area college or university and going on to an institute of higher learning will be a tremendous asset for students, Weatherbee added.
Parents and students in Ninilchik also were excited about the opportunity. A number of parents of freshmen students attended the ceremony at the school Wednesday and signed their children up for the program.
Among them were Joe and Tina Klaypak, who have seven children, including ninth-grader Jonathan.
"I think starting at Jonathan's age (helps)," said Joe Klaypak. "If you start as a junior, it's just too late. You're already lost. In a family, you can put importance on (education), but the kids themselves have to value it as a group. I think having some goals in school is a good thing."
And, he added, "I'm glad to know there is a scholarship available for him."
Jonathan agreed. "I think it's great the whole class gets the scholarships instead of just one person."
After visiting Ninilchik, Project GRAD representatives flew to Tyonek, on the west side of Cook Inlet. The small Native Alaska community is home to a little less than 200 people, and 40-some kindergarten through 12th-grade students attend Tebughna School. Residents live a primarily subsistence lifestyle and commercial fish, though the unemployment rate is high in the village, which is accessible only by water or air.
One of the school's biggest challenges is student achievement. The school failed to meet adequate yearly progress, and students scored low on assessment tests last year. Only 22 percent of students were proficient in language arts, and 17 percent were proficient in math.
Pancratz, site coordinator for Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula, said Project GRAD currently is working to increase awareness of the program in the village.
Due to weather conditions, the representatives were unable to arrive in Tyonek prior to the end of the school day, but Pancratz said several parents stopped by to ask questions about the program.
"The scholarship opportunities are great opportunities for their kids, and that's the part that attracts parents," Pancratz said.
She said a community member is working to set up additional information sessions for parents and community members to continue learning about Project GRAD.
In addition, she said, "The teachers are very excited about it."
She said the program is not only about scholarships but also about supporting the school and helping students get ready for a college atmosphere.
"Having the staff buy in is really positive," Pancratz said. "They're ready for it."
She also added that two community members the president of the school's parent advisory committee and a member of the village council have agreed to travel to Houston to talk to program developers about making curriculum more culturally sensitive.
"Even though it's not a large group of people buying in, the people who are, are buying in a lot," she said.
School staff members in Nanwalek also said they are excited about Project GRAD coming to the community.
Located on the east side of Kachemak Bay, south of Homer, the small Native community is home to about 200 people, including 63 students in the kindergarten through 12th-grade school. The village is accessible only by air or water, and like Tyonek, the residents live subsistence lifestyles and work in commercial fishing.
The Nanwalek school also did not make adequate yearly progress last year, though test scores were not as low as in Tyonek. About 43 percent of students were proficient in language arts and 45 percent were proficient in math.
Principal Maurice Glenn said one of the primary assets Project GRAD will bring to his school is curriculum continuity, which will help maintain a steady flow in students' educations.
Though Glenn has been principal at the school on and off for about 10 years, he said the teaching staff turns over more quickly.
"To me, the program will maintain education," he said. "This will maintain continuity, so there are no gaps."
He also added that having a site coach a teacher hired by Project GRAD to help implement the program will take some strain off teachers who already are spread thin.
"It's a win-win situation for the teachers, community and students," Glenn said.
He added that the scholarships promised would give Nanwalek students alone about $250,000 over the next 12 years, offering higher education and skills training to many of the students who could not otherwise afford it.
In nearby Port Graham, another Native community off the road system, many parents were as excited about Project GRAD as school staff members.
Parents of the nearly 30 students at the kindergarten through 12th-grade school attended the community gathering to learn about the program and ask questions. Among the primary concerns was student performance on state-mandated tests.
Though the school met adequate yearly progress with 60 percent of students passing language arts and 44 percent passing math, parents said they were concerned about the school's ability to produce high- achieving students.
They said they believed Project GRAD could help by bringing additional resources and increasing academic rigor.
David McComack, a parent and member of the school's site-based council, said he is concerned about the future for his students and their peers.
"We have kids leaving in their 11th and 12th years," he said. "We're not succeeding."
He said he hopes the graduation incentives provided by Project GRAD will help curb the dropout rate.
He also said he hopes the program will benefit his children, who are a year ahead of schedule in school.
"I'm looking forward to something like this for them," he said. "It's really good to see this for kids. I think this is going to be neat to have, especially in this area."
Wayne Norman agreed. A single parent raising five children, he said he hopes the program will help his younger sons stay in school and follow their sisters into college.
"I believe it'll do just what we hope for it to do," he said. "The age group that's out in college now, it seems they just went and did it on their own. I hope these kids will do the same, and this will help."
"It gives our kids hope," added parent Ephim Anahonak Jr.
Terry Martin, the principal at Nikolaevsk School, said he believes Project GRAD will bring much-needed resources to the Russian community.
"We face the same challenges schools are facing already: dwindling financial support impacts staffing and opportunities for our students," he said. "This program brings resources into the school to increase college awareness and opportunities.
"It's a great program. Folks are really excited about it. I am excited."
The community of Nikolaevsk, about nine miles inland from Anchor Point, consists primarily of Russian Old Believers. However, it is one of the more progressive Old Believer communities on the peninsula. Women wear traditional garb, and the girls in school all wear dresses daily. People also get married earlier than in much of American society and have large families.
However, Martin said, the community is more committed to education for its students than it has been in the past, and fewer students are dropping out of school each year.
"Our parents are finding value in education here," he said. "That's something unique in our community. Value is placed on education."
Test scores in the village school attest to the commitment.
Nikolaevsk passed adequate yearly progress with about 86 percent of student proficient in language arts (despite the fact that English is not the primary language in the village) and 68 percent proficient in math.
Though many of the female ninth-graders gathered around a set of pictures of a friend who was to be married this weekend, they also said they hope to finish high school and attend college.
Their mothers have the same hope.
"I think it's great. It's going to keep our students in school," said Kira Tipikin. "In my day, it wasn't like that. I dropped out, and nobody said anything. It was that easy."
Tipikin said she still supported traditional practices she asked Project GRAD staff members if scholarship money still would be available to students who got married in their teens and found that it would. She said she wants her kids to have an education.
Her sister, whose ninth-grade daughter signed up for Project GRAD on Friday, agreed.
"My daughter signed," Mila Reutov said, smiling. "Now she can't drop out."
Community members in Razdolna, another Old Believer community on the south peninsula, did not mimic Nikolaevsk's support for Project GRAD or education in general.
The village is down a long, dusty road off East End Road outside Homer and practices a more traditional form of the Russian Ortho-dox religion. As in Nikolaevsk, religious traditions are apparent in the school.
However, school doesn't seem to spill over to the community.
No parents or community members showed up for the Project GRAD kickoff ceremony Friday, and principal Pete Swanson said the situation was typical.
"They're not very connected with the school," he said.
Though Razdolna School passed adequate yearly progress last year 48 percent of students were proficient in language arts and 38 percent were proficient in math the school faces a unique challenge: In its 17 years of existence, the school never has had a student reach 12th grade, let alone graduate.
Martin explained that Alaska state law only requires students to attend school until they are 16.
"This village has a history of young ladies heading out to take care of homes and young men going to work," Martin said. "It's still happening."
Most men work in commercial fishing, but Martin said villagers are finding they no longer can make a living in the industry.
"They're finding they have to work longer and further away from home," he said.
He added that some women in the village have begun taking classes through Kenai Peninsula College in Homer to gain certifications and expand their employability, but it still is not the norm, Martin said.
"There is a lot of pressure on daughters especially to stay home and take care of kids," he said.
He said he believes Project GRAD will help the situation by showing residents that people in the outside world care about the success of their students and their community and by expanding opportunities for young people.
"I think Project GRAD will give them a chance to stick it out and spend a few more years in school," he said. "As people start to give (students) more options, they're going to see opportunities."
But, he said, the process will take time.
"At Razdolna, I could see the girls were embarrassed to think of other options, but I saw a level of interest," she said. "It's a huge leap for them. It's going to take a couple years."
The last stop for the Project GRAD entourage Friday was Voznesenka, another Old Believer community out East End Road from Homer. Though Voznesenka is not far from Razdolna, the community is both larger and more interested in continuing education for students.
Walls in the school are lined with posters from Alaska universities, colleges and trade schools, and a number of parents showed up to learn about Project GRAD, though most were parents already involved in the school.
Ksenia Kuzmin, the school secretary and a mother, said she wants her daughter, now in eighth grade, to go to college.
"She's aware of that," she said. "We've had that discussion, even before Project GRAD."
Principal Ray Hillman said the community's interest in education and training for its young people is growing as times change.
"Mothers are finding it hard to go from the village into the work force, so they want their kids to stay in school," he said.
He added that in the last three years, nearly 35 adults in Voznesenka and sister-village Kachemak Selo have gone back to school to get their general equivalency diplomas.
"They're embracing education more," he said.
Still, he said, the school does face its share of challenges.
The school did not meet adequate yearly progress last year, though the overall student body passed tests as required with 57 percent of students proficient in language arts and 58 percent proficient in math.
However, students in the low English proficiency subgroup, which includes more than half of the students, did not pass the language arts portion of the tests at the mandated rate.
Community members also had some concerns about parts of Project GRAD's program, specifically the requirement that students attend summer institutes.
Most students are expected to work in fishing or construction with their families over the summer, and though Project GRAD has promised stipends for students during the institutes, families say they need the young people's help even more than money.
Teacher and community member Stan White also said it may be hard to get parents involved in the program.
"I know a lot of Project GRAD is supposed to be getting parents involved. That's always a goal, but (it) has always been hard," he said. "Families are large and mothers are busy. The structure is more traditional, where mothers deal with the kids and fathers deal with the money. Also, there's the attitude that 'I send my kids to the school, it's up to the teachers.'"
Still, he said, he thinks Project GRAD will offer assets to the community by streamlining curriculum and providing more focus for overworked teachers. He also said as the community begins to recognize the need for further education and vocational training, the scholarships will make such things possible.
Ken Hepner, another teacher at the school, agreed that the program has potential given time.
"There's a lot of optimism," he said. "People are willing to think about it, work with it."
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