The Kenai Peninsula is the first community in Alaska to join a Houston-based school reform program known as Project Grad USA. The partnership with school districts and communities provides graduation incentives and personal support for students, curriculum consistency and staff development.
At an official signing ceremony at the KCHS auditorium last week, KPBSD Superintendent Dr. Donna Peterson said the district had been very particular about choosing programs to become partners with. "I can only tell you that I feel more and more positive each day with what's happening. The magic that is going to happen in these seven schools is going to be contagious to all our schools," Peterson told the gathering of educators, administrators and community leaders. The goal according to Peterson is not only to improve student achievement and give students the tools to continue their education, but also to address the challenges the district faces in its smallest schools.
Present for the signing was Project Grad USA Chief Operating Officer from Houston, Texas, Robert Rivera. "What this means is that immediately we are making a commitment to the students of the seven schools of a $4,000 non-competitive college scholarship for all students if they maintain a grade point average of 2.5 or better when they graduate in their senior year," said Rivera. The seven KPBSD schools included in the program are Ninilchik, Nanwalek, Nikolaevsk, Port Graham, Razdolna, Tyonek and Voznesenka. Project Grad has an impressive track record at urban inner-city schools where the program originated. "There are many similarities in urban areas to rural areas; high teacher turn over, low achievement levels and we think that our strategy of working with schools is a successful way of addressing these issues," explained Rivera. While Project Grad brings about $1 million dollars to the partnership for operational expenses, a local non-profit board has been created that has been charged with raising the scholarship funds for the students. "We're striving for a long term relationship here, K-12, because it's going to take that type of effort to really begin to address the needs that have been identified here in the schools," added Rivera.
The first group of Project Grad students committed to the new partnership unveiled their banner at an official KCHS ceremony last week.
A graduate of the debut program in Houston, Izamara Gamez, also marked the official start of Project Grad in Alaska. Gamez said as a freshman she was among a group of students that were not expected to finish high school let alone obtain a college degree. She credits Project Grad with giving her the tools she needed to succeed. "It was more than the incentive of the $4,000 that Project Grad gave me. I was able to intern at a law firm and be exposed to an environment in my senior year at the University of Houston Downtown that took away from my fears of getting out there and succeeding," said Gamez, who now works as a recruiter for the University of Houston.
The ceremony at KCHS concluded Wednesday with the signing of a poster size memorandum of agreement by district officials, parents, community groups, students and executive staff of Project Grad USA, followed by the unrolling of the Project Grad Kenai Peninsula banner. The group then traveled to each of the seven Project Grad communities for kick-off ceremonies.
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