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News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, April 10, 2014
Project Launch bridges distance between high school and college

by Ruby Nash

Project Launch, a program funded anonymously through the Maine Community Foundation, is focused on keeping students in college.

Kim Hutchinson of Deer Isle is leading the project, now in its first full year of implementation at Deer Isle-Stonington High School. Hutchinson has a background as a social worker, a long-standing commitment to community development, and is a first-generation college graduate herself. “I could never have envisioned a more perfect job,” she said. “How often does that happen? It was like a perfect storm.”

A pilot project last year consisted of three graduates of Deer Isle-Stonington High School, who Hutchinson met with one-on-one, and worked with to develop the program further. After her initial report, it was clear that there was a need and an opportunity to expand.

The number of students who complete college in four years in Maine is 29 percent, which is just below the national percentage of 31 percent, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. The gap widens when tracking students who graduate in six years. Forty-nine percent of Mainers finish, while 56 percent across the country complete their college education in the same timeframe.

Based on the initial study, the anonymous donor funded the endeavor for an additional three years, or a total of five years once fully funded. Hutchinson said she approached Union 76 Superintendent Mark Jenkins and Deer Isle-Stonington High School Principal Todd West about becoming a parent organization for the program. Jenkins and West agreed.

“We’ve been working really hard to make sure every student graduates [from high school],” said West. “We also want to make sure they’re prepared for college and a career. There was a gap in the process. They get a lot of help to graduate, apply to schools, determine financial aid, and get accepted. Having Project Launch fills a space between high school and being comfortable at college, which is really important.”

The program works in partnership with the guidance counselor’s office and has been incorporated into the DISHS school day. “I couldn’t say enough good things,” Hutchinson said about the arrangement. “It makes it easier to connect with the students and establish relationships. Working with them has been a huge piece of our success.”

During the pilot, Hutchinson realized that the need during the transition doesn’t start with the first year of college, but well before. Project Launch targets a student’s senior year, in an effort to establish a connection before the newness of college.

The program matches students bound for college with mentors referred to as “Gurus,” who range in age from 19 to 25 years old. “We wanted the mentors in the program to have had a successful college experience recently,” Hutchinson said. Some guru-student relationships are frequent; they go to lunch or sports games. Others do not have much connection at all, but there is comfort in knowing the guru is available.

“A lot of the support comes through Facebook and text message,” Hutchinson said. “Some students texted their guru 10 times a day in the first weeks of school, just trying to find their way around.”

The gurus get training on how to provide support. The purpose of a guru in the Project Launch program is to listen and guide, not to solve the student’s problems for them. For example, if a student is struggling with a choice in major, the guru may suggest the student contact their academic advisor. They would not make the appointment for them. The students enrolled in the program can use it as much or as little as they want, but more often than not, they use the support offered.

Tegan McGuire, who is a 20-year-old junior in college, is undertaking her first year as a Project Launch guru. She has lunch with her student on a weekly basis and assists whenever there is a need, whether it is finding a building or helping with homework. “I love it. I kind of struggled my first year. I wish there had been a program like this for me,” she said. “I like knowing that I could be the difference that keeps a student in school, instead of dropping out.”

The need for guidance tends to peter out as the students become comfortable with their new surroundings. The first semester is critical, according to Hutchinson, and second semester, needs begin to dwindle. All students are invited to program events even if they are not in their first year of college. Hutchinson plans to keep the door to Project Launch open for any problems students may have down the road.

The program has been successful so far, said Hutchinson. Not a single participant of Project Launch has dropped out of college, and every college-bound senior at DISHS has signed up this year. Work is being done to see whether the project can be replicated in other communities.

Hutchinson summed up the purpose of the program, now 40 students strong, by saying, “They want to spread their wings; they’re just not sure how to do it.”