Focusing on the future

Published 9:47 pm Sunday, October 24, 2010

Niles JAG
Just days before the commencement ceremony for the Niles High School class of 2010, English teacher Ryan Bigelow was discussing his work with the school’s Key Club and his disappointment with being one of a handful of teachers being laid off due to budget cuts.

At the start of the school year, however, Bigelow was back in the classroom — this time as part of Michigan Works’ Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) program, new to the high school and the district’s alternative education school, Cedar Lane.

But he’d be the first to say the program is not about him — it’s about the students.

“A lot of them are coming from families that don’t have a college background,” Bigelow said. “We can kind of bridge that gap” between sitting in the classroom, getting into college and seeing their hopes for the future realized.

According to Michigan Works, the organization brought the JAG program to southwest Michigan three years ago to prevent high school dropouts and better prepare young people for the workplace.

“Regional economic prosperity depends on the availability of a skilled workforce,” Todd Gustafson, executive director of Michigan Works said. “If we don’t take immediate measures to ensure our area’s future employees have adequate academic and vocational skills, businesses will be forced to move elsewhere in search of talent.”

Bigelow said he’s currently still in the middle of enrollment for the program but will work with an estimated 40 students between the two schools, teaching a class in the morning on various competencies such as resume building, job interviews and human relations.

Students enrolled in the program benefit from one-on-one instruction by Bigelow, who also incorporates community service projects into the program.

He said he acts as a teacher/counselor for those kids who might have a hard time focusing in class or getting to class at all.

“The main focus is getting them here, making them appreciate being here,” while helping connect them to opportunities through community colleges and the workforce.

For many students, he said, finding hard times at home “can be a huge distraction at school.”
That’s where he comes in, meeting with kids to help keep them focused and understand the potential opportunities available to them.

“We call it academic remediation,” he said. Through one-on-one instruction and the general classroom, Bigelow said he works “to help (students) succeed in their other classes” while preparing them for building a career.

There are requirements students must meet in order to enroll in the program.
When it came to Leon Murphy, after hearing about the JAG program, he pushed to become enrolled.

“So far, I think I like it,” Murphy, a junior, said. “I’m glad that they brought it to Niles. I think it’s good for when you go out on your own.”

Murphy said he feels as though he’ll be more prepared next year when he gets closer to the end of his high school career and faces his hopes for college.

Murphy is thinking of studying law or premed when attending college and is hoping to attend either Central Michigan University or Western Michigan University.

Bigelow, he said, helps him go over subjects he struggles with at times and works with him to make sure he understands the material.

Dajanna Davis, also a junior, said she enjoys the program because it gives her an opportunity to catch up on work and focus. And she said she’d recommend it to those students who “need help with their work or don’t come to school. This would be a good hour to get their work done.”

“We’ve been incredibly successful,” Gustafson said. “We address barriers to student success, provide intensive tutoring and remediation and really prepare them for the real world of work.” According to Michigan Works, the tri-county program has a 96.7 percent success rate, meaning students have either returned to school or graduated, and test scores have increased by 19.6 percent.

“We’re already seeing the benefits a lot,” Bigelow said. “(The students) know I”m calling them up. They know I”m showing up if they don’t come (to class).”

Jobs for America’s Graduates

JAG teaches leadership, communication, career development and job success skills. Students earn credits toward graduation and possibly early college credit, depending on post-secondary relationships. JAG is designed to enhance, not replace, the standard school curriculum.

The JAG training approach includes the following:

• An interactive learning environment
• Participation in community service and service learning projects
• Membership in a student-led career association
• Awareness for further education after high school and employability skills
• Campus tours and guest speakers

Source: Michigan Works