When Turner High School senior Maykayla Jones found out that her brother Leavy referred her to his Jobs for America’s Graduates-Kansas specialist, she was not a happy camper. She thought JAG-K was a program for students who were not doing well in school and who had less than stellar grades. Certainly not her.
“I was super mad that my brother even told them about me,” Jones said. “I’ve always been good in school.”
But Jones, who has lived with her grandmother since the age of seven, said the program has helped her manage a multitude of challenges that include having a deceased father and a mother who up until recently had been incarcerated for ten years. JAG-K students aren’t always poor students, they’re considered at risk, with barriers that might keep them from graduating.
Even with her family situation, Jones was succeeding, but JAG-K provided her an opportunity to grow in spite of the difficulties high school can often bring. Just months from graduation, she’s planning on attending Pittsburg State University to become a child therapists, and at Turner, she’s the JAG class president, a position that has her in charge of helping lead 25 other JAG students.
“I can be myself,” Jones said on what makes her so comfortable in the president’s role. “I think that what I like most about JAG-K is that we are family and that we don’t judge each other.”
“Our program is not a dumping ground for students who have no potential for success,” said JAG-K CEO and President Chuck Knapp. “All of our students, if we are following the JAG model, have great potential for success. They just need someone to help them unlock it.”
JAG, a national non-profit program committed to helping resolve the country’s dropout and transition problems through state organizations and local program that help young people greatest at risk overcome barriers to graduation from high school and become college and career ready. The program is currently active in 32 states and the Virgin Islands.
The JAG Program began in Kansas Schools during the 2012-2013 school year and it’s been expanding rapidly. The Kansas program currently has more than 2,800 students enrolled in 28 districts across the state and boasts a 91% graduation rate. The JAG-Kansas program is administered by Communities in Schools of Kansas in partnership with the Kansas Department for Children and Families and the Kansas State Department of Education. Funding for the program primarily comes from a Temporary Aid for Needy Families grant through DCF.
“I don’t know what the current statistic is, but I believe it’s 80%,” Knapp said. “That’s your chance of going into poverty if you don’t graduate high school. So, by getting someone thru high school, we obviously changed the trajectory of their life. But then we go the step beyond and help them get on a career path.”
In JAG, students are introduced to education, training and career opportunities they did not know existed. Campus visits, business tours and special guest speakers are part of the JAG-K experience that leads to successful paths, including college, vocational training, the U.S. military and directly into the workforce with marketable employment skills.
Part of the reason that JAG-K works, is due to the dedication of its career specialists. Although JAG-K is an elective class in Kansas schools, the students attend JAG-K full-time and work with their career specialists intensively.
Melissa Reed, Jones’ JAG-K specialist, said the program has had a personal impact on her life that lasts beyond the traditional school day. As specialist, Reed has a variety of roles that include wearing the hats of teacher, counselor/advisor, case manager, and friend — often all at the same time.
“I can’t leave work at work. I’m always thinking about my students,” she said.
Wyandotte High School career specialist, Cynthia Garner is in her first year with JAG-K She said that working with her 39 students is more than a 40 hour a week job. Garner often attends her student’s extracurricular activities and is a counselor to them outside of the classroom.
Garner said she knows her job has a measurable worth when she’s able to celebrate with her students as they achieve or overcome an obstacle.
“I try to let them know that I am here for them,” Garner said. “It’s not about me.”
George Baker, FL Schlagle High School senior, said his specialist, Diane Webb helped him overcome his stage fright last year in time to deliver a speech that would convince other people to vote for him as their JAG-K student leader. It worked. Baker gave his speech in front of over 500 people, and yes, he was selected to represent his JAG-K class.
The soon to be Park University freshman who plans to major in physical education says that JAG-K has helped him become a better person.
“[JAG] pushes me to do my best. Nothing from me but my best,” Baker said. “Since I am the President I have to excel in every aspect of JAG.”
Knapp, In his first year as JAG-K CEO, said he will be the proudest when he attends May graduations and sees his students walk the stage. But that won’t be the end of the program’s relationship with the students; the program includes a 12-month follow-up system, in which assistance is given to former students and their performance is tracked. A highlight of the program is the State Leadership Conference held in November. During the conference, students participate in the competitive events: math skills, employability skills and public speaking. The top three finishers in each competition are awarded all-expense paid trips to Washington D.C. to attend JAG’s National Student Leadership Academy. In February, JAG-K students had the opportunity to attend JAG Legislative Day at the State Capitol and visit with their representatives and senators. Students are currently preparing for the Career Development Conference, which will be held in April. During that conference, JAB-K students can participate in the following competitions: essay, interview, extemporaneous speech, marketing and a poster competition.