OCT. 5, 2012 -- With about one in four South Carolina high school students failing to graduate on time, a nationwide program has such good graduation rates for seriously at-risk kids that it is being hailed as a new solution.
Jobs for American Graduates, the program, strives to get nine out of every 10 South Carolina participants out of high school and into a job or higher education.
It seems to be working.
Last year in its sixth year here, the program’s participants had a high school graduation rate of 93 percent. Currently, there are 25 “JAG” chapters across the state, mostly in high schools. Each chapter has about 40 students involved in each school, said Elaine Midkiff, the state's JAG coordinator at the Department of Employment and Workforce.
Some of the kids that the program helped along the way have a story that would make most people crumble, such as the boy last year who wrote in the program’s newsletter about his father being an abusive drinker who abandoned the family.
Unable to escape the cycle of despair, the boy began “partying” and was eventually charged with possession of a controlled substance with the intent of distributing it on campus.
His life is back on track thanks to JAG, he wrote.
Clay Cohen, an advisor who works with the program in Chesnee, has seen the small victories bloom into better lives.
What happens through the JAG program is that especially troubled kids, such as those who have criminal records or both parents in jail, start caring about their future. And they end up with better horizons by getting better job interviewing skills, entering a traditional four-year college, gaining a spot in the military or beginning a career in nursing.
Cohen said he was heartened by how successful graduates returned every year to share their success stories, and help inspire and motivate younger versions of themselves.
Part of an overall push
Gov. Nikki Haley lately has been praising the success of a welfare-to-workplace program in the state Department of Social Services, one of her cabinet agencies.
Haley and DSS head Linda Koller announced recently at a press conference that more than 12,000 South Carolinians had “transitioned” from welfare to work since the beginning of the year – twice the rate from two years ago.
JAG, like the DSS program, seems to be part of a patchwork of effort meant to help the state, and more importantly, its residents get back on their feet.
Sen. Phil Leventis (D-Sumter) a member of the Education and Finance committees in the Senate, praised the efforts, saying that while not every program works, it was like a favorite Wayne Gretzky quote: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
Like Cohen, Leventis said the JAG program was too young to provide widespread effects for the state, but he was impressed by its start.
“Statistically speaking, it is so very important for a young person to graduate from high school,” said Leventis, who added he hoped people across the state would apply the same zeal to helping at-risk kids as they do to supporting their schools’ sports teams.
Leventis, who will retire from the Senate at the end of this year after three decades in public office, said the important thing to remember with any program like welfare-to-work, JAG or teen drug prevention is that the work will have to be replicated every few years and “that whatever worked this year won’t necessarily work in five years from now.”
“There’s no silver bullet,” he said.
Silver bullet needed
Sue Berkowitz, one of the biggest advocates of the poor in the state as the head of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, also praised the various efforts gaining traction to help those slipping between the cracks across the state.
But, she said a bigger question might be looming for these and similar efforts: Are they acting as Band-aids or as ladders?
Berkowitz was dismissive about Haley and Koller’s claims, saying most of the jobs gained were 30 hours a week or less and didn’t deliver a living wage or insurance.
With nursing jobs capable of delivering $50,000 yearly salaries, Berkowitz said she hoped programs like JAG pointed kids in the direction of breaking cycles of poverty and hard times.
She pointed to a statistic -- that 28 percent of children in South Carolina live in poverty -- as proof of the state’s real enthusiasm about helping the downtrodden.
Crystal ball: These programs jobs won’t be getting easier any time soon. While the nation’s unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent – the first time below 8 percent since January of 2009 – South Carolina’s rate has remained stagnant at about 9.6 percent in August. But, it gives kids a shot.
Bill Davis is editor of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.