Today's blog post, in the end, is a good news story of heartwarming efforts. Yet before going there, I need to present a few facts and statistics to frame my subject, which focuses on WorkOne Northern Indiana's innovative and proactive programs to address a lingering issue of young people dropping-out of high schools.
WorkOne's staff members and programs focus on teenagers and young 20-somethings who are adrift and low-skilled in north-central Indiana, but let's be crystal clear -- the dropout crisis is national in scope.
"Far too many young people are growing-up without the support they need to succeed in school and life," said an April 2014 statement by America's Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization founded in 1997 by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. "More than 20 percent of high school students [nationally] do not graduate on time. Moreover, the most recent estimate is that 5.8 million young people between the age 16-and-24 [in the U.S.] are neither in school nor employed. This lack of opportunity for young people is morally untenable, economically unsustainable, and fundamentally inconsistent with our values and aspirations as a nation," added America's Promise Alliance.
Now with a framework in mind, let's discuss some of the ongoing efforts WorkOne Region 2 (covering Elkhart, Fulton, Kosciusko, Marshall and Saint Joseph counties) is pursuing with vigor through our regional Jobs for America's Graduates (JAG) program. Importantly, WorkOne's regional effort is supported in many vital aspects by the JAG office of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development (DWD) as well as a national, nonprofit organization where JAG was founded in 1979. Governor Mike Pence currently is serving as the vice chair of the board of directors for the national JAG organization.
A key component of JAG's mission is to reconnect at-risk students academically by helping them surmount high school graduation barriers, such as poverty, family dysfunctions and low academic achievement, among others. Since 2006, Indiana DWD's JAG program has helped more than 9,000 young Hoosiers to stay in-school through graduation, pursue post-secondary education and earn quality entry-level jobs leading to career-advancement opportunities. Under a formal JAG curriculum developed and revised over several years, students are taught up to 88 competencies, including pursuing critical thinking, engaging in team leadership, demonstrating time-management, developing a career path for a selected occupation, performing mathematical calculations, communicating in writing, competing successfully with peers, understanding financial literacy and communicating verbally in an effective manner. Moreover, each student who learns and hones these competencies and skills will boost their marketability to employers.
In Elkhart County and the four others that comprise Region 2, WorkOne operates JAG programs at 15 high schools with JAG enrollment of 516 students. WorkOne employees who teach the curriculum and mentor students invest the bulk of their work-time inside high schools, and their titles are "professional JAG specialists." During the academic year, they remain in close contact with WorkOne managers, and during the summer break, the specialists attend in-person and online professional-development training workshops and seminars. In addition, during the summer, they monitor the progress of JAG students in paid internships.
Regarding several important elements, the JAG program places much emphasis on conversations among students and specialists, and in addition, JAG assigns vast significance to project-based and experiential learning. In this light, WorkOne Region 2 hosted its Sixth Annual Northern Indiana Career Development Conference (CDC) on Feb. 20, 2014, at the Ray & Joan Kroc Center in South Bend. The principal activities during the event were competitions among individual JAG students from Region 2 in categories including: career presentation, creative solutions, critical thinking, employability skills, financial literacy, public speaking and writing skills. Each competition was based on published scoring protocols, and judging was accomplished by professionals from north-central Indiana economic sectors such as banking, insurance, secondary and post-secondary education, government, health care, economic development, human resources and social services.
WorkOne officials have been delighted with the competitive nature of the conference for various reasons, including the synergies that clearly happened when teenagers were removed from their daily comfort zones and put into workplace settings. Here's a glimpse at what occurred for numerous JAG students: They absorbed healthy doses of learning via experience and thus broadened and strengthened their soft- and technical-skills along the way.
Furthermore, a remarkable and really cool aspect of the CDC was that JAG students accomplished much learning unbeknownst to themselves because -- during those critical moments in front of judges -- he or she was fully engaged in a competitive task, yet the beauty was that their confidence soared when they soon perceived and understood their own strengthened skills, such as in communications or problem-solving or securing employment.
For instance, Steve Somerville, currently a junior at Elkhart Central High School, performed very well during the public speaking competition at the Region 2 CDC and was awarded first-place by a panel of local judges. The top two scorers in each competition at 12 regional conferences (aligning with Indiana's 12 economic growth regions) were invited to a state Career Development Conference sponsored by DWD on March 14, 2014, in Indianapolis. During this event of 125 JAG students from across the state, Steve elevated his public speaking skills to a level where judges awarded him first-place among high school peers from across Indiana. Yet he wasn't finished with building his skills.
Based on his performances, Steve and WorkOne employee Eliot Jeremiah, the professional JAG specialist at Elkhart Central, were invited to the governor's mansion, and they received a tour from Governor Pence on April 9. Steve and Eliot met other dignataries, including Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan. In addition, the day was highlighted when Steve presented his winning speech to Governor Pence and others.
Beyond the CDC conferences, WorkOne's professional JAG specialists invest much energy, creativity and careful thought into building trusting relationships with students. Larry King, who currently is Region 2's JAG regional manager, talked in 2012 about why trust-building is important, and his views are relevant today and will resonate down the road. "We have to build in some trust and talk about the trials and tribulations of each young person's life," he explained.
"It's good to open-up that window of trust and it helps," Larry remarked. "When they [JAG students] trust in both you -- and the advice I give them -- positive things can happen." Upon doing remarkable work to establish trust with a teen, "I can get more out of them; I can push them." When the "level of trust is like a light and it comes on -- they will come in, and talk to me," he said. With a trusting relationship at hand, learning surges and students invariably make other positive strides as well. These achievements by a JAG student, Larry proclaimed, "really bring joy to my heart to see a student come so far in one or two years."