Unique education program leads to special friendship

FRESNO, Calif.

The program was designed to keep about three dozen students from dropping out of school.

It appears to be a success. The first group of kids are about to graduate from high school. Action News got an update on one student we first met back in 2009.

It may seem odd, to some, that Phil Rusconi and Kris Estrada would become buddies.

"Honeslty, he helped me a lot," said Estrada.

But the two have become so close, over the years, they're now more like family members than they are friends.

"I just treated him as my own," said Rusconi. "I've had experience with my own, and kids are kids. I was one too."

One is an 18 year old boy, the other a kid-at-heart. The two met four years ago through the 720 program. It's a mentorship created to help Central Unified's "at risk" students stay on track to graduate.

'It's kinda like, any questions you have in life, just go to him. Kinda guides you that's what's kinda cool," said Estrada.

Project 720 gets its name from the number of school days it takes a student to get from 9th grade to 12th grade. Students in the program typically have attendance or behavioral problems. Many also have low test scores and are struggling with their G.P.A.'s.

"How often do you guys talk?" asked Action News reporter Linda Mumma.

"Probably once a week, just to check up on my grades," said Estrada. "Like a weekly progress report."

Estrada says he and his mentor met every week for four years to discuss life both in and out of the classroom.

"And I knew about him more than just meeting, because I'd check up on him silently," said Rusconi.

Rusconi said as a freshman, Estrada had poor grades and problems with his vision. Because of that, he often sat in the back of the class, kept quiet and could barely see the overhead projector.

Fast forward four years later, and Rusconi helped him break out of his shell, giving him the support and encouragement he needed to improve his grades.

"Are you proud to see him graduate?" asked Mumma.

"Oh yeah, and I'll probably give him a hug up there whether he likes it or not," laughed Rusconi.

Now Estrada is about to get his diploma and Rusconi admitted he was glad to be there every step of the way.

"He's got a head on his shoulders and he's using it," said Rusconi. "I am just so proud."

Estrada will walk in his high school's graduation ceremony on June 6th. From there, he plans to join the Airforce and pursue a college education.

If you'd like to learn more about "Project 720" or become a mentor yourself, click here.

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