VIENNA — Vienna High School has been chosen as one of eight Illinois schools to pilot the return of a program geared toward struggling students at risk of dropping out and who could benefit from extra assistance in crafting a plan for their lives after high school.

Jobs For America’s Graduates helps students explore potential career paths and the steps they need to take to get hired in those fields, according to Superintendent Josh Stafford.

“We’re really excited about this because one of the major things we don’t do well as a K-12 system is connect people to meaningful career paths,” Stafford said. “We’re rock stars at college readiness. We do a great job preparing students to be admitted to college."

Stafford continued, "But the place where we’ve fallen flat on our face, and embarrassingly so, is in helping students make meaningful connections to careers after graduation.”

JAG, as it is known by its acronym, is a national nonprofit that partners with states and local schools to create programs aimed at helping students make a smooth transition into the workforce after graduation.

Various Illinois schools operated JAG programs until about a decade ago when schools shut them down as state funding for the programs dried up, said Jonathan Furr, executive director of the Education Systems Center at Northern Illinois University. (Then, the state called its program Jobs for Illinois Graduates). 

This fall, the program will gear back up in eight Illinois schools. So far, Vienna and Kankakee high schools have been named as participating schools. Furr said the other six schools will be announced in the coming months. The goal is to encourage additional schools to add the program in future years as more funding becomes available, he said.

The program’s revival in Illinois is made possible by $600,000 in workforce development funds over two fiscal years earmarked for programs that target at-risk youth populations. The Illinois Department of Employment Security is administering the funds in partnership with Northern Illinois University's Education Systems Center, which was founded in 2012 to assist the state in the development of programs around career, work and college readiness. 

A new executive director, currently employed in a partnership with the JAG Iowa program, is in the process of establishing a nonprofit with a board made up of statewide business and educational leaders to oversee the program.

Once that happens, she will transition into her role as executive director of the nonprofit, and also be charged with soliciting private donors to support the JAG Illinois program long-term.

Stafford said that he has long believed that high schools are emphasizing the wrong questions to students.

Our first question should not be, ‘Where do you want to go to college?’ but rather ‘What do you want for a meaningful career, how do you envision doing for a successful, fulfilling life?’” Stafford said.

“Our intent here is to turn that ship and start asking the right questions first," he said. From there, the program will help students determine the best way to reach their goals. That could range from going straight into the workforce after graduation to enrolling in a traditional four-year college. But Stafford noted there are also many options in between, such as earning an associate’s degree or certificate in the trades at a community college, entering the workforce and taking classes part-time, and joining the military or other service organizations such as 

Furr said that one of the great things about Jobs for America’s Graduates is that the program already operates successfully in thousands of schools across 35 states, so Illinois can learn from others about how to best help students.

“The reason why I’m such a champion of the JAG program is that while we talk about career opportunity for all students, we haven’t always had a strong model for those students that are most in need of finding a successful transition into a career,” he said. “This gives students the support and exposure they need to be successful as they leave high school.”

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On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​



Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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