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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, June 8, 2001

Record high for Project Graduation

By Shayna Coleon
Advertiser Staff Writer

How to help Interested in helping your community's Project Graduation? "People who are interested should call the school in their community," said Jan Meeker, DOE Project Graduation coordinator. "Find out who's in charge. Although some schools already have chairs until the year 2005, attach yourself to next year's group." Or call Meeker at 394-1348.

In Project Graduation's 11 years in Hawai'i, it had never seen numbers like these.

The event reached an unprecedented number of campuses this spring when 45 high schools statewide participated in the all-night, alcohol- and drug-free senior commencement celebration.

This year, three public high schools and two private high schools held their first Project Graduations, adding to the previous year's total of 40.

On O'ahu, a record 33 schools participated, including 22 out of 23 public high schools and 11 private schools. On the Neighbor Islands, nine out of 20 public high schools participated, also a record, said Jan Meeker, the Department of Education's Project Graduation coordinator.

"It's just amazing how far it reached," Meeker said, particularly since attendance was so low last year — down almost 15 percent compared with 1999.

Last year, out of the 12,000 graduating public school seniors, only 5,600 participated in Project Graduation. Meeker said the growth of the program is still astonishing, considering that when Project Graduation started in 1990, only one high school in the state, Roosevelt High, held the event.

Every year, the number of schools and students participating fluctuates depending on the enthusiasm of the Project Graduation committees and the classes, Meeker said.

Although the number of students who participated in Project Graduation this year will not be available until Meeker meets with the high schools' committee chairs tomorrow, she said the increase in school participation may well translate to a record number of students.

Meeker said the high turnout is a result of more parents and children realizing the importance of prevention.

"It's a great time to think of the event's importance, especially when the gentleman in Wahiawa was killed the night when many of the Project Graduations were taking place," Meeker said, referring to 20-year-old Dustan Long, who was shot by Honolulu police after he fired at an 18-year-old guest during a party Sunday at Long's home.

"It's really sad because this is exactly the type of thing we're trying to prevent," Meeker said.

Laurene Pereza, Project Graduation chairwoman at Kailua High School, said she volunteered because the program is a necessity during graduation season — a time when youngsters are prone to accidents because they are driving late at night and attending late-night parties.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 41 percent of fatal crashes involving young people, ages 15-20, occur between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., and of the 5,477 teen car crashes in 1997, 21 percent of the drivers had been drinking alcohol.

"When the kids asked me why the project is so important, I always think of what the Castle Medical Center told me when they heard we were running the event," Pereza said. "The nurses said, 'Thank you for keeping our kids off the street, so we don't have to be seeing them in the emergency room because it's not a pretty sight.'

"That makes the kids think. And, it makes parents want to help because we don't want to hear about the kids in our community getting hurt and having to go to that emergency room."

Parents are asked to run the Project Graduation events because once the students graduate, they are no longer part of the school and are not covered under the Department of Education, Meeker said.

A lack of parent volunteers has kept Radford High School from having a Project Graduation since 1996, said Etuale Suafoa, Radford's grade 9 and 12 vice principal. Radford was the only public high school on O'ahu to not hold the event this year.

"We do have a few people that might volunteer next year," Suafoa said. "And we would definitely support parents that do want to help with the project."

Without strong parental support, the event suffers and graduating seniors often fail to participate.

"What will make more kids sign up is word of mouth," Meeker said. "If the class under the seniors heard they had a junk time, they won't go next year. It's also the reflection of energy of the parents running the event."

To boost student participation, Windward O'ahu auto dealer Mike McKenna donates cars for one lucky student to win if the graduating classes from Windward high schools and Kealakehe High School in Kailua-Kona — a total of five schools — achieve a 95 percent attendance rate. If classes reach 85 percent attendance, he gives a $2,500 check as a consolation prize to one student.

McKenna was involved in a graduation-night car accident 50 years ago, and believes Project Graduation keeps people safe during commencement weekend. In the past nine years, McKenna has given away 23 cars.

Other schools try to increase student attendance by improving the reputation of their school's Project Graduation.

Last year, Waialua High School's Project Graduation fund amounted to almost nothing, Meeker said. This year, the Waialua Project Graduation committee raised about $46,000 to take 60 seniors, more than half of their graduating class, on a trip to California, where the students and parent chaperones visited Disneyland, Universal Studios and California Adventureland for three days.

No other Project Graduation has ever taken students outside of Hawai'i before, according to Meeker. Myra Teves, mother of a Waialua High graduate, said the parent committee strived to do their best to plan a fun and safe trip in lieu of the many enticing parties that occur during graduation weekend.

"Because these are our children, and rather than them hopping from one party to another and having that opportunity to do drugs and alcohol, we protect them as much as we can," Teves said. "And graduation should come with a natural high, instead of having to cloud up their memories with that bad stuff."