by Sarah Einselen
LOGANSPORT — For a handful of seniors at Logansport High School, Jobs for America’s Graduates meant they could spend a few class periods painting their classroom in berry red and coordinating colors to make it more welcoming.
But in making redecorating decisions and splitting up the work among the class members, they were practicing “soft skills” like teamwork, leadership and responsibility that will help them obtain jobs after high school, according to their JAG teacher Jay Jones.
Cass County’s only JAG class is in its second year and has 18 seniors and 12 juniors participating. The students, all recommended for the class by guidance counselors and the school dean, qualify for the program in part because of family income levels or other characteristics that put them at risk of not graduating from high school.
Upwards of a hundred students are narrowed down, via interviews and teacher references, to find students who are a good fit with each other and with the JAG class ahead of them.
“The biggest thing they’ve got to come with is the willingness to change,” said Jones.
At least a handful of the 30 students will be the first in their immediate family to finish high school, he explained. Others haven’t been encouraged to continue their education after high school, either.
“We’re trying to break cycles of poverty, so we’ve got to show them what’s out there,” said Jones.
Nationally, JAG participants graduate from high school at a rate of 94 percent, according to the organization’s class of 2011 data. LHS seniors this fall will be the first to graduate from the full, two-year JAG program.
Students do projects on different career paths and have visited multiple college campuses to explore post-secondary education possibilities. Many of them interned at one of several local businesses over the past year and a half.
But “employability is only part of it,” said Jones. As the JAG instructor, he tries to develop leadership skills in his students, too.
JAG has already improved the participating students’ academic success, said high school principal Matt Jones. Achievement and attendance have increased, discipline issues have gone down and students have gained confidence.
“There is a direct correlation to the program and a JAG student’s success in school,” Matt Jones added. “Students in JAG see in increase in both GPAs and credits earned.”
And at least one is on her way to college — something she never thought was in her future.
Shea Cook, an 18-year-old senior in the JAG class, finished two internships while in the class and got a job from the most recent one.
Now employed at the YMCA in Kokomo, she’s applying to Ball State University and the Art Institute of Indianapolis to pursue studies in fashion retail and marketing.
“I really didn’t care about school,” Cook said, before starting in the JAG program. “I wanted to hang out with my friends.”
She qualified, though, because of her family’s financial situation.
“I didn’t really think I’d benefit much from it,” remembered Cook, but she now says the main thing she’s learned is how to get ready for “the real world.”
“I’ve definitely opened up with my communication skills,” Cook added. She had already been a take-the-lead type, “but you have to listen to what the customer wants.”
Cook’s classmates have completed 19 paid internships besides the two she did. They’ve also finished several community service projects, including participation during Live United Day this fall.
Through the projects and internships, students are honing skills that will contribute to their later career development and leadership.
“My job is more to get them to actually do these than to learn them,” Jay Jones said of the 37 “core competencies” JAG aims to develop in students.
“We try to do a little bit of everything,” said Jay Jones, “but I try to let them lead.”
Painting the JAG classroom, for example, was their idea.
“Is that fun for them? Probably,” he admitted. “But they’re committed to the project.”
• Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-732-5151.