JAG-K career specialist Tony Evans
JAG-K career specialist Tony Evans helps his classes at Wichita Heights High School wake up with “brain food.” (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

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Tony Evans stands at the entrance to his Wichita Heights High School classroom each morning and greets each of the nearly 40 students in his Jobs for America’s Graduates – Kansas classes.

He makes small talk with some or jokes to get the attention of others – especially when the students might not be fully awake in the early morning hours.

“Mostly, it’s about building relationships,” Evans said.

But it’s those relationships, alongside a program that focuses on three pillars of success, that has led the program to a near-100% graduation rate among its students.

And it’s a model Chuck Knapp, president and CEO of JAG-K, wants to expand to more of the state’s at-risk students.

Chuck Knapp, president and CEO of Jobs for America’s Graduates – Kansas, wants the program to reach more struggling high school students around the state. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

What JAG-K does differently

While JAG-K is offered as an in-school elective in the districts that host it, the program is administered by the statewide JAG-K office. The program, which launched in Kansas in 2013, partners with schools to place career specialists on campus to work with students.

To be members of JAG-K, students have to meet a few criteria, namely that they face six barriers keeping them from academic success.

“It could be that they lack maturity, or they might have an incarcerated parent, or they might be homeless,” Knapp said.

Once they’re picked for the program, students are placed into cohorts of no more than 15 per grade in order to give them more individualized time and the ability to build higher quality relationships, Knapp said.

The program also focuses on the JAG Advantage, which is a set of 87 skills and competencies – including punctuality, work ethic and giving and receiving feedback — centered around three pillars:

  • Project-based learning 
  • Trauma-informed care 
  • Employer engagement

Through those three pillars, JAG-K career specialists guide students through skills including putting together a resume, interviewing for a job and finding college, internship and career opportunities.

An important part of the program is simply exposing students to resources, Evans said. The career specialist, who previously worked with unsheltered people through the Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas, said many of those he worked with lacked resources to help them as they faced difficult times.

“You can feed them today, and they’re fed for that day,” Evans said. “Or you can teach them how to get their own food, and you’ve helped feed them for a lifetime. That’s the whole principle – connect them to resources, and they’ll know where to go when they run into rough patches in their own lives.”

Additionally, while students take JAG as an in-school, elective class, the program offers year-round support and helps them for a year after they graduate, Knapp said. This allows the program to follow up with students who didn’t graduate on time and help with credit recovery or getting a General Education Development high school diploma equivalent.

James Guldner, a Wichita Heights junior who started the program as a first-year student at the school, said his involvement in JAG-K helped him set career goals.

“When I first got into the program, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “Now I know I want to be a welder, because I realized I like hands-on work.”

Tony Evans said he knows he has to build relationships with his JAG-K students before the class can help them graduate and achieve success after high school. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

Reaching more students

JAG-K’s approach led the program to a 97% graduation rate in the 2019-20 school year – a notable feat when the state’s graduation rate has only recently started to tick toward 90%. 

Knapp said he expects JAG-K helped even more during the pandemic, since its career specialists focused on keeping students engaged with school.

“Especially given all of the COVID-19 restrictions, students’ disengagement with school and all of the challenges schools are facing, we feel really good about maintaining that high level of success,” Knapp said.

This year, JAG-K has 79 programs in 43 school districts and serves about 4,000 students. More than 60 of those are multiyear, high school programs. 

But with nearly 400 public high schools in Kansas, Knapp said he sees an opportunity to reach even more students by starting additional programs around the state.

“Every student could benefit from JAG-K, even if not every student would qualify,” he said. “If we could be in every public high school, I know that the graduate rate would exceed the (Kansas) State Department of Education’s goal of 95%.”

“But even more importantly than that, our students would be better prepared for post-secondary education and training and for the workforce,” Knapp added.

JAG-K costs about $74,000 per year per program, which includes a career specialist, administrative support and management. A school could have a single program or more than one. Most partner schools use federal grants to pay for the majority of the cost, leaving the school districts about $11,000 to pay out of pocket.

Knapp said that’s a small price to pay to change the lives of 60 students. JAG-K is working on adding more than a dozen new programs at schools across the state.

Wichita USD 259 has existing programs at Wichita Heights, Southeast and West high schools. But district officials are in discussions to expand programs at Southeast and West, as well as add a new program at South, Deputy Superintendent Gil Alvarez said.

“JAG has done a great job of keeping the goal of graduation at the forefront of students’ minds, especially when those students might not think that it’s automatic for them,” Alvarez said. “It provides opportunities for our students, whether those are in careers, workforce or college.”

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Garcia was an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon and Report for America corps member.