JAG-K helping Kansas high schools boost graduation rates
The first day Devin Russell-Unger ever set foot in a JAG-K classroom, he wasn’t sure he deserved the opportunity to change his life.
The Augusta High School student, having gone through the state’s foster care system, had become bitter with his situation.
He’d lost hope for his future.
But when he was enrolled in Christy Pray’s JAG-K classroom, he found a family of students who face similar challenges in their lives. He found a safe place that would push him to succeed in school.
“JAG-K helped me redirect my energy,” Russell-Unger said. “I used to be angry and depressed about life, but JAG-K taught me I could use my words and positive actions to be a voice for change in the system.”
Russell-Unger and about 4,000 other students across Kansas are enrolled in Jobs for America’s Graduates Kansas — the state’s chapter of a national program focused on getting students not only across the graduation stage but also to careers and education after high school.
And stories like Russell-Unger’s are the reason Gov. Laura Kelly is proposing a $3.5 million state allocation for JAG-K to expand to dozens more high schools in the coming years.
A safe place for ‘those’ kids
JAG-K works by partnering with public high schools around the state to place program specialists in their buildings. The specialists are officially JAG-K employees, although school districts use grants or their own dollars to pay fees to support the programs.
Those specialists see small cohorts of about 15 students per grade during classes as part of the regular school day. Students are screened and accepted into the programs based on whether they face some sort of barrier — such as time in the foster care system — to success in school.
“Sometimes they see themselves as ‘those’ kids, but my job and passion is to show ‘those’ kids that those colleges and careers are just as much for them as they are for anybody else,” said Pray, the Augusta High JAG-K program specialist.
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Working together with their classmates and program specialists, the students follow an 87-competency framework developed by the national JAG program to learn career, leadership and employability skills and knowledge that they might otherwise not learn in other classes.
Additionally, program specialists stick with students even a year after they graduate to help them get into post-secondary education or apply for jobs.
But mostly, JAG-K programs are a source of support for students who desperately need it, Pray said.
“It provides someone who isn’t judging them — it’s someone who wants to know not just their grades but the person behind them, and their story,” Pray said. “JAG-K gives these kids a voice. It lets them discuss how they can make Augusta better — how they can make our state, our country better. It gives them a safe place to explore these kinds of pathways.”
Helping thousands more Kansas high school students
Over the next few years, the Kansas State Board of Education wants the state’s public and private high schools to reach a 95% graduation rate — an ambitious goal considering the state is stalling at about 88.1% in most recent data.
One of the key areas of improvement will be drastically bumping up graduation rates in the state’s urban school districts. Graduation rates in those districts have trended between 70% and the low 80%’s over the past several years.
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Working with the Kansas State Department of Education and Kelly’s office, the state JAG-K program identified eight urban school districts to target for expansion, as well as schools in judicial districts without JAG-K program as part of efforts to reduce the number of teenagers involved with the juvenile justice program, said JAG-K president and CEO Chuck Knapp.
That includes a program at Lawrence-Gardner High School, the high school for teenagers incarcerated at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka. JAG-K started that program as a priority this spring semester, but the hope is the $3.5 million appropriation introduces a sustainable funding source for the high school program.
“What better place for them to go than a JAG-K program, where our specialists are trained in trauma-informed care?” Knapp said. “We have a track record of helping our students overcome barriers, so we think we can actually help on both ends of the spectrum.
“The governor clearly believes we can be part of the solution.”
Regardless of the potential $3.5 million state appropriation, JAG-K is planning to add more than 20 programs next year to the 81 programs it currently operates, Knapp said. In Kansas City USD 500 alone, the district is working through plans to add 11 programs, hopefully by using federal COVID-19 relief dollars meant for schools. However, that funding proposal still has to go through the state education department.
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With the appropriation especially, though, Knapp said he thinks JAG-K could help the urban districts reach at least the current 88% graduation rate initially. Since JAG-K started in Kansas nine years ago, the program has boasted near 100% graduation rates.
Eventually, the goal would be for JAG-K to be an opportunity for every Kansas high school student who would qualify for the program, Knapp said.
Programs cost about $74,000 to start in a school district, with about 85% of that cost going to program specialist salaries, Knapp said. The costs end up working to about $1,500 per student, which he called a “small investment that results in generational change.”
“If you’re keeping that student out of poverty and out of the correctional system, you’re making a difference not just on that student and their family, but on society,” Knapp said.
Gov. Laura Kelly: ‘It’s a winner’
Gov. Kelly, who has been a proponent of JAG-K since her time as a state legislator and a member of the JAG-K board since her first days as governor, said supporting JAG-K with a state appropriation has been a priority for her, but budget difficulties over the past several years made that funding difficult to achieve.
But on the heels of a better budgetary outlook for the state, Kelly’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 restores $21 million to the state’s Evidence-Based Programs Fund, meant to reduce the number of Kansas youths involved with the juvenile justice program and specifically directs $3.5 million to JAG-K.
“I am very much into evidence-based programs and funding programs that do what we need them to do,” Kelly told The Capital-Journal. “There’s no doubt in my mind that with all of the work that JAG-K does, and all of the evaluations of this program, that it’s a winner.”
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The $3.5 million allocation, as part of the overall state budget, still has to make its way through the Kansas House and Senate, then back to Kelly’s desk.
But Knapp said he’s cautiously optimistic, especially since JAG-K has enjoyed broad bipartisan support since its inception, when Gov. Sam Brownback helped bring it to Kansas. Legislators like Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta and chair of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, have been impressed by the program/
“It has proven results,” Williams said, noting that districts can choose to fund more JAG-K programs even without the state appropriation. “We’ve had a lot of learning loss since the pandemic, and JAG-K is a great way to really target that learning loss and target those kids who are at risk of not graduating.”
On Thursday, about 300 JAG-K students from around Kansas gathered in Topeka, where Kelly proclaimed Feb. 10 as JAG-K Day. Students like Devin Russell-Unger, the state student president from Augusta, met with legislators and talked about the different JAG-K has made in their lives.
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Russell-Unger used to shy away from public speaking but using the leadership skills he learned in JAG-K, he said he’s found it easy to talk about and advocate for JAG-K.
After all, all he has to do is share his story, he said.
“JAG-K helped me discover these skills I’m pretty sure I’ve always had,” he said. “It taught me how I can use my people skills and energy to help improve other people’s lives.”
Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.