Members of the Department of Workforce Development visited Prairie Phoenix Academy [PPA] on Thursday, Feb. 16 to witness how the alternative learning center graduates students who were struggling at the high school and prepares them for employment post-graduation through the school’s Jobs for America’s Graduates [JAG] program. The staff at PPA not only focus on preparing students for higher education and/or the workforce, but opening the students’ eyes to what is going on in their own community and helping others. “We’re trying to teach the kids that there is so much more out there, that even when they have problems of their own they can still do a food drive, they can still get 78 pieces of canned goods that they can take over to food pantries,” said Sandy Sobek Leslie, the regional director of Jobs for America’s Graduates [JAG]. “Just show[ing] them there is somebody worse off than they are is an important learning tool for them as they go through their career.” PPA also focuses on exposing and connecting students to various employment opportunities in the area. “The career part of it is so important because these kids are often the ones that stay in our communities, and when you are not aware of what is in your community from a social standpoint or from a business standpoint, you don’t feel like you belong or are engaged,” Forward Service Corporation CEO Marcia Christiansen said. “For example, we took kids to American Family and when you say insurance, they think a stuffy little guy in an office pushing paper. When they went over to American Family hey realized there is an IT Department, there is janitorial – there are so many jobs that can happen. They didn’t realize that is part of an industry,” she continued. “If we can get them on the track to education and realize that it is going to be about lifelong learning – it is not just getting a diploma – but it’s the idea and the hope that they are part of the community,” Christiansen added. Keith Schaub is just one student who has benefited from the JAG program and PPA. Schaub worked for the Madison Mallards last summer, and that connection arose from bringing in Mallards’ General Manager Conor Caloia to speak to students. Schaub quickly became Mallards employee Jake McGhee’s go-to guy whenever he had extra work. “It started off where on any given night we might have a tailgate of 200 people and all of a sudden there is 1,000 people showing up…it became every game I was calling Keith about 45 minutes before the game and saying ‘hey, any chance you can come in?’ It happened on such a regular basis…it became he came in an hour and a half early every day and I would have a list of things prepared, things I needed help with. He always went above and beyond,” McGhee said. Schaub’s dedication and hard work ethic was noticed immediately, and not just by McGhee. “After the first week we do an Employee of the Week award, and that is amongst everyone who works in the ballpark,” McGhee said. “All the supervisors were able to see the kind of work that he was putting in, and he actually won the very first award we had for Employee of the Week.” Schaub said he is hoping to begin a carpentry apprenticeship through MATC next year, and to one day open his own construction business. “This school has helped me quite a bit. I went from not wanting to go to school…to the point where I like coming in and I like learning new things. I feel like knowledge is power and the more you know, you can go further in life. I don’t want to learn just one set thing, I want to learn the broad of everything.” Following Schaub’s comment on wanting to learn as much as he can, Reggie Newson, the secretary of the Department of Workforce Development, encouraged Schaub to “keep up the good work.” “We’re all here to support you,” Newson said.
I applaud the efforts, what they are doing here to help young people get a fresh start, help young people make decisions about what they want to do and provide information to make good choices,” Newson said. At the end of the visit, Department of Workforce Development official Newson and Jonathan Barry checked out a career fair that was being held down the hall. The career fair featured schools and employers from Sun Prairie and Dane County, including the Madison Mallards, Globe University, the Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department, South Central Wisconsin AHEC and more. “One of our top initiatives or priorities is connecting job seekers to jobs, and this fair here is indicative of bringing employers in and having young people have the opportunity to meet the employers and connect them to the job opportunity,” Newson said. “Another one of our priorities is development of a high school labor force in Wisconsin and through this program – helping them get a job and helping them develop career pathways and build their skill sets – it is helping them move on that path to develop their skills.” Before leaving, Newson said he is planning on working with PPA staff to connect employers with students, particularly in the manufacturing field. The JAG program serves youth with significant barriers to high school graduation, employment and/or a post-secondary education. The program provides instruction, mentoring and placement services to assist students in pursuing a fulfilling career after high school. JAG currently operates in 33 states with more than 800 programs, including one at PPA. Nationally, more than 750,000 students have completed the JAG program and received a high school diploma or GED, according to a press release from the Department of Workforce Development. The Sun Prairie program has a 100 percent GED/high school graduation rate, and more than 90 percent of student found employment after graduation. Approximately 100 students have been enrolled at PPA since 2009. Governor Scott Walker’s “Wisconsin Working” plan includes a College and Workforce Readiness Council to improve student readiness for college and careers through a variety of measures, including designing shorter and less costly degree programs aimed at filling high-need positions. His plan also calls for the Department of Workforce Development to double the number of job fairs it holds in 2012 to at least 100, add staff to help Unemployment Insurance claimants return to work more quickly and strengthen partnerships with other agencies, including Veterans Affairs and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, to connect job seekers to available jobs.