Dora’s JAG program helps students overcome challenges and discover opportunities
After retired West Plains High School principal Dr. Jack Randolph spoke at Dora High School about the Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) program several months ago, a majority of the students expressed interest in participating.
Covid kept the school from implementing the program immediately, but students were interviewed as prospects, and this year, 53 of the high school’s 120 students were selected for JAG, which was launched at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.
JAG now operates nationwide, with more than 3,500 students involved, but Dora is the first school in Ozark County to have the program.
Dora superintendent Dr. Allen Woods named Amanda McKee as the JAG teacher after seeing her success last year with a program for at-risk students that was instituted as the school waited for the best time to launch JAG. McKee’s “dedication and caring spirit were so important to the success of that program,” Woods said. “After watching Amanda form such positive relationships with these kids, I knew she was the right person for the JAG job.”
Helping students of ‘great promise’ overcome ‘significant challenges’
The national, state-based JAG program was launched in 1979 by former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont as a way to help youth of “great promise” who face “significant challenges,” according to the JAG.org website. Those challenges may include a variety of economic, family or social hardships and experiences that the students have endured – or are currently facing.
“We have students with some very difficult situations, but JAG helps them build the confidence that they’re worthy enough to obtain a successful and happy life,” McKee told the Times recently. “We discuss our success, dreams and fears, and the students share their heartaches and lean on each other. It’s amazing to see the students celebrating their successes and being there for one another in the tough times. It’s a family atmosphere. And they’re seeing that they are not defined by the hardships in their lives or by their limited resources. They’re laying a foundation to discover who they are, but they’re also exploring their interests and setting goals.”
That “family atmosphere” evolves from JAG’s strategically designed “trauma-informed care,” one of the three major components of the program. The other two components involve employer engagement and project-based learning.
In addition to nurturing the students’ self-confidence and overcoming challenges, JAG offers students practical steps to prepare for the future, whether it’s learning a trade or working at some other job or going to college or joining the military.
“Over the past 30-plus years, our education system has pushed ‘college or bust.’ I think that mindset is not the correct one,” Woods said in an email to the Times. “There are many good jobs around here that can be learned with an apprenticeship or at a technical school, and we should promote these jobs just as hard to our students. It is so hard to find skilled labor around here – a plumber or an electrician, etc. We need people in our society who will build our country, and those skills are lacking.”
Supported by area employers and trades programs
Several area employers and trades programs support the JAG program by providing information and opportunities for the students to consider what work they want to do.
For example, last month two Dora JAG students, Faith Mings and Stephen Williams, participated in a career fair at Wonders of Wildlife in Springfield. “These are students who want to move to Springfield after graduation,” McKee said, adding that both students are considering attending college or trade school there – and considering jobs they might hold there to support their post-high school education.
At Wonders of Wildlife, they wrote down three areas they were interested in and then spent half a day job-shadowing in one of those fields. They went to workshops, and after lunch, the students presented their resumes with job applications, McKee said. The students learned about things like the importance of social media and keeping their online posts clean. They also learned about the importance of their Linked In profile. They looked at a cost-of-living breakdown that helped them consider, “Can you afford to live up here?”
In their daily JAG classes back at school, students are currently “completing job analyses, figuring the ins and outs of careers or trades they want to go into, and looking at the job prospects for employment in Missouri as well as other states,” McKee said.
The Dora JAG students have formed a “local career association that focuses on leadership development, career development, social and civic awareness and community service,” McKee said. “There’s a president who oversees the chapter and vice presidents for the different categories. The committee maps out the community service projects, guest speakers, field trips and plans the initiation and installation ceremony.”
JAG students have welcomed several guest speakers over the few weeks. The Dora FFA program partnered with JAG and welcomed Austin Robbins with the Missouri Welding Institute in Nevada, Missouri, who talked to the students about “what MWI offers, including career placement. It was an eye opener for the students to see what the school offers,” McKee said.
Other speakers have included State Rep. Travis Smith, Ozark County Clerk Brian Wise, Ozark County Sheriff Cass Martin and Laura Hand, a behavioral mental health therapist in West Plains.
The JAG students also visited several offices and businesses in Gainesville and West Plains to begin building partnerships and involvement opportunities.
JAG students ‘want to bless our community’
The students’ community service projects are focused on the idea that “they want to bless our community, to give back,” McKee said. Their projects include writing letters to soldiers, helping in the preschool and doing mental-health outreach activities. “They’ll have training to help everyone understand, for instance, how to respond if a student comes to you and says, ‘I’m struggling mentally and I don’t know what to do,’” McKee said. “The JAG students will know who to contact.”
Earlier in the school year, the JAG students participated in an essay contest for Missouri First Lady Teresa Parson about what has contributed to making Missouri great the last 200 years. Natasha Slavik’s essay was selected for inclusion in a book to be published by the First Lady. She and McKee will attend a reception for the selected essay writers to be held Nov. 9 at the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City. The Dora JAG students are making an ornament for the First Lady’s Christmas tree that Natasha will present during the visit.
The JAG program at Dora is supported, in part, by a Department of Family Services grant that the school district matches. The money is used for “technology for the students” as well as for field trips (JAG students will visit Missouri Embroidery in Springfield soon) and other travel to such events as the First Lady’s reception and the Wonders of Wildlife career fair, McKee said, adding that the program also pays for clothing, if needed, for students’ interviews and job shadowing.
Students in all four high school grades participate in Dora’s JAG program, and their link to the program will continue after they graduate. For a year after graduation, “I’ll follow up with them monthly, reaching out to talk about employment or their living situation, communicating about job placement, education or getting an apartment and just helping them figure things out as well as reaching out to their employers twice a year,” McKee said.
Woods said that when retired West Plains principal Jack Randolph first mentioned JAG to him the first year he was at Dora (2019-20), “I was interested in it immediately.”
Now that covid restrictions have eased and the program has been implemented, he said he feels just as strongly. “This program is going to not only be a success, but it is also going to shine here at Dora,” Woods said.