Real Bipartisanship Helped To Create And Expand The Success Of Jobs For America’s Graduates

Remember when bipartisanship worked? When people from different parties could work together to benefit at-risk children and the nation as a whole?

Remember when bipartisanship worked? When people from different parties could work together to benefit at-risk children and the nation as a whole?

Jobs for America’s Graduates, the nation’s largest, most consistently applied model for high school retention and school-to-career transition for high-risk young people of promise, owes its beginning and success to bipartisan collaboration.

Four decades and change ago, Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont decided that his near-bankrupt state, which also had the nation’s second-highest dropout rate, ought to do better for its young people. He turned to his chief education advisor, Ken Smith, who oversaw the work of multiple task forces to emerge with a plan for Jobs for Delaware Graduates.

Today, Smith, who had previously served as Vice Chairman of the National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children and Chair of the National Commission on Employment Policy, is still the President and CEO of Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), which has grown from its humble beginnings in tiny Delaware to a nationwide organization (at 1,450 locations in 39 states) that has helped 1.7 million vulnerable and marginalized young Americans.

Smith says that JAG, whose participants have a 40-year record of over 90% graduation from high school, is “one of America’s best-kept secrets.” The performance of JAG’s enrollees during the COVID-19 pandemic is among the best evidence that the program is maybe even more relevant today than ever.

Most importantly, JAG helps young people who all too often say that “nobody ever invited us to join anything.”

Despite 2020-2022 national absentee rates through the roof on top of the lockdowns and distance learning and the departure from government schools of 800,000 teachers, nearly 96% of JAG enrollees graduated. While nationwide youth unemployment soared to 30% in May 2020, the rate for JAG enrollees was a mere 11.5%.

What are the secrets to JAG’s success, and why is Smith, now in his 42nd year at the helm, predicting a huge increase in JAG’s role in rescuing students the system was failing to turn them into productive adults?

It all goes back to Gov. du Pont, who decided after a very close vote of his cabinet, said: “Our young people cannot wait, the schools cannot wait, and our employers cannot wait.”

Jobs for Delaware Graduates starting in 1979 began its mission to provide “something far more effective, far more accountable, and far more cost-effective for the poorest and most disadvantaged youth in our schools.”

Soon after the Delaware program showed its first fruits, the Republican du Pont convinced Democrat Vice President Walter Mondale to help expand the Delaware Model to other states; Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb (also a Democrat) signed on as Vice Chair of the newly formed Jobs for America’s Graduates, and Smith was installed as CEO.

Today, 14 state governors are on the organization’s board of directors, along with other distinguished Americans, including a dozen C-suite executives from Fortune 500 companies.

The JAG program operates within schools by helping students develop their employability skill sets and overcome personal hurdles. Trained Job Specialists work with JAG students to help them master 37 employability skills that prepare them for workforce and life success. These specialists provide both individual and group instruction to 35 to 45 students selected by an in-school advisory panel. Multi-year JAG students are eligible to master up to 81 of these competencies.

Those students who get high school credit for their JAG coursework are also encouraged to build relationships with 19,000 JAG-connected local employers; engage in project-based learning; develop leadership, civil, and social responsibility via a student-led career association; and engage in career research that can lay the foundation for post-high school job opportunities.

Beginning in middle school, JAG participants learn how to explore career options and improve their academic performance, school behavior, attendance, confidence, participation, and self-esteem. JAG’s dropout prevention program includes support services to help students overcome or cope with academic, economic, family, and personal barriers – in short, the program reaches the whole child.

Keeping students actively pursuing useful knowledge and self-confidence that their labors will not be in vain fuels the school-to-work program that helps youth finish high school. JAG even helps dropouts return to get their diplomas or a GED, as well as a quality job and career path. But JAG’s work does not end with the diploma in hand.

Specialists help high school seniors identify job opportunities, assist in their exploration of post-secondary education, and navigate financial aid opportunities that enable them to pursue a degree program, certification, or industry-recognized credential.

Just as important, JAG provides crucial follow-up assistance for students for a full year after graduation, whether their path flows toward post-secondary education (college or trade school), military or other national service, or employment.

The success of the JAG programs during the past three years — dubbed as “the worst situation in American public education history” — has brought a renewed commitment by the JAG Board to double the number of students and schools served in the next four years. This is, says Smith, a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to use monies released during the pandemic to rescue up to 150,000 students a year from a bleak future.

Current Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan implemented the JAG program as Commissioner of Labor 15 years ago; the JAG-VI program was recognized as one of the highest achieving states and won the “5 of 5” State Award for exceeding all five of JAG National’s performance metrics aimed at graduation and employment.

New JAG Board Chair, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, has tripled the JAG program in her state to 150 schools with a goal of 350 schools within another three years. Former Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who launched his state’s JAG program in 2019, will continue promoting JAG in the Senate.

At an upcoming national governors’ meeting, Smith and his gubernatorial ambassadors plan to reach out to governors of nonparticipating states to bring them on board. JAG has plans to redouble its efforts to expand JAG programs to every state. Sadly, the number of students in true need far exceeds the number that JAG can now serve.

Nationwide, JAG receipts support from major corporations like AT&T, Hilton, Archer Daniels Midland, McDonald’s, Synchrony, HCA, Entergy Corporation, Honeywell, Weyerhaeuser, Regions Bank, Microsoft, and GE. By contrast, most of the 19,000 employers who hire JAG graduates have fewer than 50 employees.

Across the nation employers of JAG graduates are crying out for reinforcements. Other employers also want students who have proven to be ready to work and people are increasingly demanding better outcomes for the students at the schools their taxes underwrite.

As JAG gears up to redouble its own contribution to America’s pressing needs, the rest of America is reminded that when people work together to solve problems rather than point fingers, the results can be astounding.

Ken Smith in 1979 likely had no idea he would be 42 years later at the helm of a movement created by the synergy released when a Republican governor sat down with a Democratic Vice President to focus on the children the system had left underserved. That bipartisanship is at the forefront of the academic, economic, and life success leading JAG today.

Yet we ought to ask ourselves, with the lasting success of the JAG model, why a JAG-style program is not part of every school in America? Why are so many children still being “left behind?”

Duggan Flanakin is Director of Policy Research with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow; he writes about a multitude of issues, innovations, and ideas