Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) recently celebrated its 40th year as a national non-profit dedicated to preventing school dropouts and helping challenged young people succeed in post-secondary education and secure good jobs. It’s become the nation’s premier education and job preparation/placement program for challenged adolescents – helping more than 1.5 million young people.
JAG now operates in more than 1,450 locations in 40 states (Full disclosure: I serve on the board for JAG-Missouri). Last year it served over 76,000 students, the majority of whom are students of color or come from low-income backgrounds. And its record of achievement is remarkable, particularly when you consider the multiple obstacles and challenges faced by the students it serves. Consider:
- The graduation rate for JAG’s Class of 2019 was 95.6%, compared to a national graduation rate for the same period of 84%.
- As of May 31, 2020, more than 30% of youth ages 18-29 were unemployed – the highest rate of any segment of he population.However, the unemployment rate for JAG’s class of 2019 was just 11.4% – nearly three times lower than the national average for all youth of that age.
- About 90% of JAG graduates were engaged full time in work, post-secondary education, the military, or some combination of those.
Last month I interviewed John Bel Edwards, Governor of Louisiana and the Chair of the Board of Directors for Jobs for America’s Graduates. When Edwards became Governor, Louisiana had 60 JAG programs in the state. After just one year, using a variety of funding streams, he doubled that to 120, and now there are more than 130 JAG programs operating in Louisiana. His goal is to push the total to 160, and he has recommended $1.6 million in general fund support be used along with various federal funding sources to reach that target.
I asked Governor Edwards about JAG’s success, including its remarkable outcomes this past year during the Covid-19 pandemic, when so much of the disruption was felt most strongly by already vulnerable communities, exactly the background faced by most JAG students.
Q: JAG is known for having a bipartisanship Board. What accounts for that quality, which has continued even during these highly polarizing times?
Edwards: Jobs for America’s Graduates is all about helping the most vulnerable and underserved youth succeed in school, on the job, and in college. This is not a partisan issue in any way. Therefore, JAG makes for true “common ground.” It was founded on the principle of ensuring equal opportunities and equality of outcomes. Since its inception 40 years ago in Delaware, its leaders have come from both major political parties. Today the JAG Board includes leaders from both parties in all 40 states in the JAG Network.
Reflecting that bipartisanship, 14 Governors serve on the JAG Board of Directors – the most Governors on any board in the country. The Board also includes members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Three U.S. Senators from both parties serve as Honorary Board Members.
Q: How can JAG address the challenges posed by the pandemic to an entire generation of youth – what some have called a generation in danger of being lost?
Edwards: We share the great concern about the risk of losing a generation of our youth to the education, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic. So many members of our students’ families have lost jobs, resulting in enormous challenges of providing food, clothing, housing, healthcare, etc. These youth often find it difficult to stay engaged in school when there are so many other needs to be addressed in their households. Further, many households lack access to the internet and/or don’t have devices needed to engage in online education.
Part of JAG’s mission is to find ways to meet all of these challenges and ensure that our students stay in school, graduate, and successfully transition into today’s very challenging job market and/or achieve their goals for post-secondary education. We have 40 years of experience in doing that, even in the most difficult environments and challenging crises.
In the depths of the pandemic, we’ve once again proven how well the program works. JAG achieves graduation rates of 95%, reduces unemployment among 18—19-year-olds by a factor of three, and engages 90% of its students full-time in work, post-secondary education, and/or the military.
Q: It’s especially important for youth challenged by poverty and other adversities to engage and be supported by adult mentors. How does JAG deliver that support, and what lessons can be learned about how schools should serve students, particularly those who are most vulnerable?
Edwards: If there is one thing we’ve learned over the past 40 years it is that well-trained, highly committed adults are essential to the success of the most vulnerable youth. Often, our JAG Specialists are the only adults with the time and experience to help our youth overcome barriers they face in life. They’re the “secret sauce” for us.
It’s important to provide students with regular learning opportunities with adults who can help them master JAG’s 37 Employability Competencies, engage with them in the JAG Career Association (our student organization that helps develop employability and leadership skills), and provide 12 months of support as they transition from high school into work or college and succeed in both. We’ve learned these objectives can be achieved consistently and at scale, but it requires hard work, with intense focus and engagement by the Specialists, who are some of the most dedicated educators I’ve ever met. Frankly, they are the main reason some of our students get up in the morning and go to school.
Q: Why should a state that’s facing severe revenue issues invest in JAG?
Edwards: I can answer that from my own firsthand experience. When I took office, Louisiana was facing a $2 billion budget hole, its worst deficit in history, and today we’re still dealing with the pervasive impacts of the pandemic. Yet, Louisiana enthusiastically invests in JAG because it’s one of the best investments we can make to overcome many of the challenges of the pandemic and to improve our future.
Funding JAG is an investment that pays dividends in the lives of our young people, our schools, our communities, and our state. Based on evidence we’ve collected in the past, young people who participate in JAG more than cover the cost of the program through the taxes they pay within 14 months of becoming employed.
Q: What are the most important lessons to be learned from JAG’s 40 years of experience?
Edwards: First and foremost, we do know what to do to help our most challenged youth succeed in school, work, college, and life. It requires commitments of time and resources, highly motivated and well trained staff, the close cooperation of schools, interest from employers in giving well prepared youth a chance to show what good entry-level employees they can be, and funding from state legislatures, schools, workforce boards, and private organizations.
The second big lesson we’ve learned is that in almost every case, even the most vulnerable youth truly have great promise. They just need an opportunity to show what they can do, with support to ensure they’re ready to take full advantage of all available opportunities.
The bottom line is that with a very modest investment of about $1,200 per JAG student, we can help them graduate from high school, get good jobs, and go on to post-secondary education if they wish. That investment pays great dividends immediately and over time, in taxes paid, reduced need for social benefit programs, and most importantly, in lives well lived by the students and their families.
As JAG celebrates its 40 years of service, it has prepared a list of the Top 10 Lessons Learned that it will be sharing for the consideration of national, state, and local decision-makers and public and private sector policy-makers. These lessons offer guidance on how best to serve America’s most challenged youngsters. They include advice on policy, funding sources, the role of local partners, the importance of adult mentors, the motivations and resilience of the students themselves, and the best forms of program delivery for this population. As JAG’s results demonstrate, these principles have shaped a method with proven success now operating on a growing, national scale.
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