Hocker Grove first site in district to pilot Jobs for America’s Graduates program for at-risk students

JAG-Kansas students on a challenge course. Leadership skills development is a key part of the program's curriculum. Photo via JAG-K website.
JAG-Kansas students on a challenge course. Leadership skills development is a key part of the program’s curriculum. Photo via JAG-K website.

For a period a day, a group of Hocker Grove Middle School students this year are having their horizons broadened with a mixture of employability training and career exploration through a program designed to improve graduation rates and job placement for at-risk students.

Hocker Grove Principal Ben Pretz joined Shawnee Mission from the Turner School District a couple years ago. As principal at Turner Middle School, he’d overseen the implementation of the Jobs for America’s Graduates program there.

“It was a fantastic program for the kids there, and we thought it would be a good fit [in Shawnee Mission],” Pretz said. “It’s a way to create connections with these kids that helps them answer the question, ‘Why are we going to school?'”

Toward the end of last school year and over the summer Pretz and Hocker Grove JAG teacher Alicia Fisher began reaching out to students who they felt might benefit from the program. The educators look at a variety of factors to determine which at-risk students might enroll in JAG.

“The common factor is that these are students who generally don’t show any real interest in school,” Fisher said. “Maybe they are struggling with grades or they aren’t involved in any activities or clubs. There are a number of social and economic barriers that might be there.”

Fisher has around 40 students enrolled in her four JAG periods this year. In class, they talk about different career paths that students could pursue directly from high school, from welding to the food service industry. In addition to exposing the students to information about career paths they may not have realized existed, the program works to arm participants with the kinds of soft skills they’ll need to be able to enter the work force.

“We practice things like shaking someone’s hand and the kinds of things you would say in an interview,” Fisher said.

Additionally, the program includes follow ups with the students over the summer as a way to remind them that their JAG teacher is a resource available to help them outside of the classroom as well.

The launch of the program at Hocker Grove is part of a districtwide push to provide every student with some point of connection where they can find “relevance” in their educations, a push that includes the expansion and modernization of its Signature Programs at the new Center for Academic Achievement.

Hocker Grove is the first school in the district to try the program, but administrators are looking to expand it to Shawnee Mission North in the coming years.

“We’ve seen a lot of excitement around the program here,” Pretz said. “Parents want their kids involved. It’s a fun and engaging class that provides some really important lessons in a non-traditional academic environment.”