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Students prepare for life after graduation

The iJAG program teaches adult skills

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Jerry Ellendson’s iJAG classes are collecting gently used professional clothing items for students to wear to job interviews. Ellendson, center, is pictured with students Samahi Henderson, Sierra Summers, Caitlyn Lewis and Seth Ramirez.

A new program started at Fort Dodge Senior High School this fall aims to help students graduate and transition into a career field following high school.

Iowa/Illinois Jobs for America’s Graduates, or iJAG, is a statewide comprehensive drop-out prevention and school-to-work transition program established in 1999. This is the first year of the iJAG program at FDSH, and there are 70 other high schools across the state of Iowa with an iJAG program.

“The class is getting kids on a career path and figuring out what they like,” said Jerry Ellendson, iJAG teacher at FDSH. “We do a lot of job-ready type stuff like resumes, taxes and a lot of stuff that you’ll need for life.”

Ellendson also works with the students to do job shadows and find apprenticeships to help students figure out what they like and get them on that career path.

There are currently 32 students in the program, spread across three class periods. Ellendson said next year the program will have 50 students. The program is open to only juniors and seniors at FDSH.

In 2018, about 15 percent of FDSH students weren’t graduating. This program was brought in to help students graduate and to put those students at risk of not graduating onto a career path before they even walk out of the school for the final time, Ellendson said.

“Ninety-two percent of kids in iJAG have a positive outcome,” Ellendson said. “That’s the main thing that we want for all these kids, because we have too many kids who get out of high school and get in trouble right away, so this kind of catches them before they go.”

The support the students receive from iJAG doesn’t stop the minute they get their diploma, either.

“I keep in contact with them for six months after they graduate to check in on them to see how their job or apprenticeship is going,” Ellendson said.

Students have to be recruited to the program and have to want to be in the class, Ellendson said. A committee looks at the students and personal success barriers they have, like coming from a divorced family or having a history of abuse, that may put the student at risk of dropping out of school. Students also go through an interview process to get into the class, Ellendson said.

With this being the first year of the program at FDSH, Ellendson is learning right alongside his students, he said. The classes have a more flexible curriculum and are designed to help students succeed both outside of school and in their other classes. One of Ellendson’s short-term goals for his students this semester is to help them pass all their classes.

“Right now we have 63 Fs in iJAG,” he said. “The No. 1 thing is getting them the help they need to pass their classes.”

The program teaches 37 competencies comprising six skill sets: personal, leadership, communication, job attainment, job success and career development.

Students learn these skills through project-based learning.

“We take real-world problems and we find a project to fix that problem, or make it better,” Ellendson said.

Right now, the classes are working on a “dress to impress” clothing drive.

“We saw a need for clothing for people who need them for interviews,” Ellendson said.

The program has donation bins set up at Family Dollar, the Fort Dodge Country Club and in FDSH for people to donate gently-used professional clothing items for FDSH students to borrow for job interviews. Ellendson said the program would like to have more donation sites if anyone is willing to host one. Anyone wanting to donate or to host a donation site can reach out to Ellendson at the high school, he said.

While the goal right now is to collect enough professional clothes for the high school students to use, Ellendson said his students want to grow the project even more and maybe make it open to the public in the future.

FDSH senior Caitlyn Lewis is in the iJAG class.

“It helps me learn what I’m going to want to do after high school,” she said. “It gives me choices for jobs, what I want to do, that kind of stuff.”

Lewis enjoys working on the clothing drive project the classes are working on right now.

“It’s really cool because it’s something that I always thought was a big deal, kids not having the right kind of clothes or something, or just not feeling confident in the clothes that they have, so I think it’s a good opportunity,” she said.

Lewis wanted to take this class because she is still undecided on what she wants to do after graduation, and feels like it is a good opportunity to expand her knowledge of various careers and opportunities available to her, she said.

A few weeks ago, Lewis was able to attend a Women in Manufacturing event hosted by Nestle Purina PetCare and Iowa Central Community College.

“I didn’t even know that manufacturing was even an option that I’d like to do, and now it’s actually a really big interest of mine,” she said.

Lewis said she thinks not many people know about this program or how it can help. She thinks it’s important to get the word out about it.

“I highly recommend it,” she said. “It has really brought me out of my shell, it’s gotten me to open up easier. I’ve made a lot of new friends and the teacher is amazing. It’s pretty much like a safe space — no one’s judgy here, and everyone’s here for different reasons, but we all come together to do these community service things. It’s like a dysfunctional family.”

The environment is Lewis’ favorite part of the iJAG class.

“It’s very comfortable and you feel like you matter in this class,” she said.

The iJAG program has several local businesses and organizations that have partnered with the program and committed funds to the program. Shimkat Motor Co., Fort Dodge Ford Lincoln Toyota, Cargill, Fort Dodge Schools Foundation and FD Alumni Association, have all supported the program.

Ellendson said the program always welcomes support.

“We’re looking for places to job shadow and we’re looking for places to visit and places to offer apprenticeships,” he said.

Students also have to complete 15 community service hours by the end of the school year, and Ellendson encourages groups to reach out to him if they have community service projects his students can do.

At the end of the school year, Ellendson said he would like to see all of his seniors graduate on time.

“I also want our seniors to have an idea of what they want to do with life and how they’re going to do it,” he said. “And for them to just be a positive citizen in the community.”