When Josh Hughes first heard about the Jobs for America’s Graduates Kentucky (JAG KY) program starting at his high school, he was on the fence about joining.
“My first thought was, this class is going to get me prepared to just go work right out of high school and that was never something that I wanted to do,” said the Pikeville Independent High School junior. “I want to go to college and get a good education.”
But the school’s JAG specialist Paul Sullivan, explained to Hughes that the program is about more than just being prepared to enter the workforce.
“(Students didn’t know) exactly what JAG was, jobs for students is what they thought, going straight to the career,” Sullivan said. “So, they thought that it was a program to not go to college. (But) this is a life skills class to help you grow, if you want to go to college or go straight to the career.”
JAG KY is designed to help students overcome barriers to graduation and successfully transition to postsecondary education, the workforce or the military. The program is an affiliate of JAG, a national non-profit that started in 1980 and is now in 39 states. JAG started in Kentucky three decades ago and has grown to 69 programs across the state, including 19 new programs this school year.
To be eligible, a student must meet at least six of 63 selection criteria, which include academic, personal, environmental, social and income and work-related challenges.
“One of the biggest misconceptions of JAG is that it’s just for students who are impoverished or have a bad home life,” said George Stafford, JAG KY co-executive director and former JAG specialist at Paris Independent High School.Getting results
JAG KY state officers, specialists and staff visited the Arlington Cemetery Memorial Amphitheater during their trip to the National Student Leadership Academy conference in Washington D.C. (Provided by JAG KY)
The classes, taught by a JAG specialist, use project-based learning to teach soft skills that will help students prepare for their next steps in life.When a parent tells Paris Independent Superintendent Stephen McCauley, ‘I wish we taught our kids this, this and this’, he tells them to check out the high school’s JAG KY program. The life skills that might get lost in the shuffle with other classes can be found in the JAG curriculum, he said.
“It’s a fantastic program that gets results,” said McCauley, a former JAG specialist at Paris. “The graduation rate … blows the socks off of any other at-risk program. It provides what we know schools should be providing to the kids that need it most. And the way the funding is set up, it’s paying for the majority of the position in your district. So, it’s a win-win.”
JAG KY provides schools with a $40,000 grant to offset part of the salary of the JAG specialist if she/he is a certified teacher and $35,000 if the specialist is an adjunct or non-certified position. The district pays the remainder of the salary and benefits.
JAG KY has a 100% graduate rate over the past nine years with about 500 students earning their diplomas each year. Officials hope to expand to 120 programs by the 2024-25 school year.
“If you want to change the lives of your students, you want to add a JAG program,” Stafford said. “We're going to work with kids that want to be successful. They’ll have support in their lives that they need. You’re going to see the culture in the building change, as many of the superintendents and principals have told us, and you’re going to see the attitudes, your kids change, because of the curriculum being taught.”Deeper connections
Martin County Schools was one of the first in the state to implement the program in 1993. Marcie Hanson became a JAG KY specialist in the district in the 1994-95 school year and has been involved with the program ever since.
“It was forward thinking at the time that we began. And I would have to say that the curriculum is very similar (now), just modernized to today’s world,” she said. “Our curriculum, the focus is on employability skills. But I always like to think of JAG as a leadership program.
“What we’re doing is producing leaders and everyone needs the leadership skills that we provide,” Hanson added. “Plus, every student that leaves our program is a prepared entry-level employee, they already know what an employer is going to be seeking.”
Hanson is now co-executive director of JAG KY, along with Stafford.
Each JAG program has about 45-65 students, which allows the specialists to have smaller class sizes and develop deeper connections with students.
If a school has six periods each day, a JAG specialist will teach three JAG classes and will have a planning period, a counseling/mentoring period and a community contact period. JAG students are required to meet with their specialist for two-to-three hours of counseling each month.
“This is that opportunity for them to be able to share with the specialist what’s going on in life,” Stafford said. “How are things at the job? How are things going in school?”
Students learn skills such as how to write a resume, what to expect in a job interview, how to balance a checkbook, among others. McCauley said when he was a specialist, he would take students to a local bank to learn how to apply for a loan.
“What we do extremely well is teach those soft skills that they need in any career and in life, what they need to be successful. I think that is really the thing that we do that is so much better than anyone out there,” Hanson said.
Because of the small classes, students often form close connections with each other and with their specialist.
“I think for our students, it has been having a place they belong. We tell them in the beginning, JAG is your home, JAG is your family,” said Stephanie Rickman, Graves County High School JAG specialist.
“JAG is a lifetime commitment. It’s always a place that you can come to, always a networking possibility for you. If our students need something across the state, across the nation, because of our JAG connections, we have that for them. And we can get them the help and resources that they need. Job interview possibilities. You know, it’s endless.”
The support for JAG students doesn’t end after graduation, specialists do check-ins with the students for a year to offer guidance and help ensure that the graduates are on the right track.
“We follow them for another year after graduation to help ease that transition into postsecondary education or the world of work or whatever it is they choose to do because that’s typically when students get lost – after they graduate from high school and they no longer have that teacher or coach or guidance counselor that is with them every step of the way,” Hanson said.
McCauley said he recently saw a former JAG student in the community and he still receives calls for references for his former JAG students.
“The relationships you can build in that program are just second to none because of the class size, the structure of the learning,” he said.Community involvement
JAG students hear from guest speakers about career opportunities. Classes take field trips to different industries to see potential jobs in action and, through partnerships with some businesses, students have opportunities to shadow workers, do internships or get part-time jobs.
Community involvement is another a big aspect of JAG. This includes working on service projects that will benefit others in the community.
“We’re the program that you call if you need help in getting something done,” Hanson said. “We have been very involved in our community.”
Following the December 2021 tornadoes in western Kentucky, students in the Graves County JAG program knew that some of their classmates would not be able to afford a prom dress that spring. So, the students organized a prom dress drive. They sought donations, worked with the community to collect dresses and were able to give out more than 350 dresses.
This year, the family resource center needed ties and belts that students could wear to graduation or job interviews, so the students organized a tie donation drive.
Stafford said the goal is that students will make a deeper connection with their community and that in turn it will open their eyes to career possibilities within their community.
“When we put a JAG program into a high school or middle school, we are thinking of the community first. We want the community to be able to see what the JAG program is doing and be able to help our students,” he said. “The students will benefit from the program by building their confidence, knowing what their abilities are, their skills, and what skill sets they actually need to develop through the JAG program to fill in-need positions locally. We feel at JAG that by filling local positions at companies and organizations within the community, this helps strengthen each county and each area of our state.”JAG gets students ‘where they need to be’
Graves County JAG students recently held a tie donation drive for the FRYSC to help students be prepared for job interviews, graduation and other dress up events. (Provided by Graves County Schools)
When Emalee Beyer entered the Graves County JAG KY program two years ago, she was so shy that she was uncomfortable going up to a fast food restaurant counter to request sauce for her nuggets.In December, the now junior was among a Kentucky delegation to the National Student Leadership Academy (NSLA) conference in Washington D.C. where she networked with congressional leaders and shared her JAG story with the Virgin Islands governor.
Stephanie Rickman, who is in her fourth year as the JAG specialist at Graves County High School, was amazed at Beyer’s confidence.
“She appreciates everything that JAG has done for her. She’s probably my greatest recruiting tool. She’s almost like my co-teacher. This little shy kid. She has really taken her leadership role above and beyond,” she said.
As vice president of Social Affairs for JAG KY’s Student Leadership Academy (SLA), Beyer joined other student leaders on the NSLA trip. The students attended breakout, general and working sessions to practice and learn about leadership techniques that they can use to help their JAG classmates.
“One of the best ways I can describe JAG is we find the student where they are and help them get where they need to be,” Rickman said. “We help remove those barriers that they have, those fears that they have. We work on their self-esteem, public speaking, and let them know that they can break that cycle, whatever cycle that is.”
Marcie Hanson, the co-executive director of JAG KY, also attended the NSLA conference where one of her former students spoke about the benefits of the program. Another former student is a congressional intern in U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers’ office.
JAG KY students will compete this spring in regional competitions as part of the National Career Development Conference. The regional winners will qualify for state and the state winners will advance to a national competition. Categories include developing a business plan, prepared speaking and creative decision-making, among several others.
“It’s more than just the competition. It’s more than just the learning,” said JAG KY co-executive George Stafford. “It’s developing these friendships and networks that lasts for a lifetime.”‘Everybody’s path to success is different’
Paul Sullivan, the JAG KY specialist for Pikeville High School, works with students making Christmas cards to deliver to assisted living residents.
When Pikeville Independent High School decided to create a JAG KY program this school year, the first challenge was explaining the program to students and getting them interested in joining.“That was the big question mark, who would want in and who would help build it?” said Paul Sullivan, the school’s JAG specialist. “We started at the top, got some seniors in it with a good name and good work ethic and just started working our way down with the roster.”Molly Coleman, a Pikeville junior, said she was uncertain about the program when Assistant Principal Brad Allen, a former JAG specialist in the Pike County school district, asked her to consider the class.
“It ended up being a really good class,” she said. “Helped me learn a lot of life skills that I didn’t know beforehand.”
Coleman, who is a cheerleader, is used to performing in front of crowds but she said being in JAG this year has helped her public speaking skills. As the school’s JAG secretary, she said she’s had “to learn how to step out of my shell a little bit and speak in front of big crowds of people.”
Josh Hughes, another first year Pikeville JAG KY student, said he likes the teamwork aspect of the program.
“It’s like everybody’s on the same page. There’s never a winner, never a loser,” he said. “It’s like everybody’s there to help for whatever project, everybody’s on the same page for it.”
Sullivan said that one of the things that makes JAG KY unique is that it meets the needs of many different types of students.
“Everybody's path to success is different. I’ve got kids that are 100% hands on and they’re going to succeed if we can find them the right career to do it. And we’ve got kids that love the books and they’re proud of it, and I’m proud of them,” he said. “Everybody’s path to success is different and that’s what every school (considering adding JAG) needs to know.”
In December, Pikeville JAG students were busy making Christmas cards that students delivered, along with a treat bag, to local assisted living residents.
Senior Maddie Ratliff, who is the executive vice president of Kentucky’s Student Leadership Academy, said Pikeville students also organized a Thanksgiving food drive and they delivered presents to residents of the local homeless shelter. Prior to joining JAG, several students now in the program participated in community service projects to help flood victims.
“I think that shows the kind of students that we have in our classes, how we want to go out and help people even though we weren’t even in this program yet,” Ratliff said. “A part of the curriculum in this class is community service, but we don’t do it just for the curriculum or anything.”