By Ken Smith, President, Jobs for America’s Graduates
It is with great sadness – and deep appreciation for all he did to bring JAG to life and then to scale – that we report the death of our Founder, Governor Pete du Pont, on May 8.
As he took office, Delaware faced multiple crises: the state was near bankruptcy, the schools were in crisis and had the second highest dropout rate in the nation, and Delaware had the highest unemployment rate in the nation (9%). At the time, the youth unemployment rate in Delaware was also the highest in the nation. Governor du Pont insisted that the state could and must do far better for its most vulnerable youth. He organized five Task Forces made up of education, employer, workforce, government, and community leaders to build a “far more effective, far more accountable, and far more cost-effective” way to help young people succeed in school, on the job, in postsecondary education – and in life. His priority, given the leaders of the state, was to focus on youth most at risk of dropping out and those who had been left behind and marginalized for too long.
Those of you who have been with us for a long time know this story, but it bears repeating to highlight the remarkable leadership of Governor du Pont – and just how important one person can be at a crucial moment. Given the high rates of youth unemployment, high school dropouts, and poorly performing schools, the Governor insisted “We can do better – far better,” and organized a series of Task Forces to develop the first Model for the program, essentially the same one delivered today by Jobs for America’s Graduates.
At that time, I was Governor du Pont’s Chief Education Advisor, so I was responsible for organizing all of it and presenting a final plan to the Governor and the cabinet for a decision. Late one evening – almost midnight – after some very difficult discussions about the state budget being in shambles and many other issues, Governor du Pont told the weary group that the plan for Jobs for Delaware Graduates was done and ready for decisions and asked me to present it.
Looking at some exhausted cabinet members over cold cups of coffee (and I have to admit, a cigarette or two), I made my best case for the program. When I was done, the Governor asked for comments. Most said “Gosh, Ken, great idea … surely need to do something, but we just can’t now … we simply have no capacity to do this … only a small amount of political capital to spend, and the issues are much bigger.” Then the Governor asked for a vote from the cabinet and senior staff. There were 12 no’s by the time it got around to me (again with kind remarks), and I said “Yes.” The Governor paused a second and said, “The ayes have it. Our young people cannot wait, the schools cannot wait, and our employers cannot wait. Let’s see if we can do something far more effective, far more accountable, and far more cost-effective than what we’re doing now for the poorest and most disadvantaged youth in our schools.” We launched Jobs for Delaware Graduates two months later.
So was born Jobs for Delaware Graduates. JDG has delivered on the Governor’s promise for 100,000+ of the most vulnerable, and disadvantaged youth in Delaware for the past four decades. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the sustained commitment of every Governor, the legislature, education, business, and community leadership and to the inspired work of the frontline staff since the inception of Jobs for Delaware Graduates in 1979. Their commitments have achieved genuine equality of opportunity and the all-important equality of outcomes for the youth of Delaware.
Governor du Pont believed that we could also do far better as a nation for the vulnerable youth population. Therefore, once the Delaware Model was proven, he joined with Vice President Walter Mondale, who made a major commitment of funding, to take the Delaware experience to four other states to see if it would work as well. In 1981, Governor du Pont reached out to national leaders such as Vice President George Bush and former Vice President Mondale, the CEO of the AFL-CIO, leaders from the Chamber of Commerce, the CEO of American Express, and Democratic leaders like Virginia Governor Chuck Robb. Jobs for America’s Graduates was formed, taking the Delaware model to the nation with Governor Robb as Vice Chair and Gov du Pont as Chair.
Because of his leadership forty years ago, today more than 1.5 million vulnerable and marginalized young Americans have achieved 90 percent+ graduation rates. They have double the success rate of the average young person in getting jobs. Young women and youth of color have achieved close to three times the rate of success in securing full-time jobs and often double the postsecondary education rate.
As we look ahead, Jobs for America’s Graduates has re-dedicated itself to Governor du Pont’s vision as we face the massive challenges resulting from the educational and the workforce impacts COVID-19 has had on the population we serve. As we enter our second 40 years, because of his vision JAG is in precisely the right places, in 1450 locations in 40 states, at exactly the right time to meet those challenges head on. We ask you to join us in expanding our reach and further enhancing our outcomes, as we build on the legacy Pete du Pont left us.
To paraphrase the words of Christopher Wren: If you seek monuments for Pete du Pont, you only have to look all around you in Delaware – and all over the nation – at so many lives lived better and more successfully because of his leadership and commitment to unlock the potential of all young people of great promise.