In 2021, looking to incorporate more work-based learning programs, Clarke Community Schools took the steps to launch and partner with the iJag (Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates) program. iJag is a public-private collaboration that looks to bridge the gap between public education and the world-of-work by connecting with local businesses and organizations to prepare students for post-graduation and future career paths. In their first year at Clarke, the iJag program exceeded expectations, connecting businesses, and offering learning experiences for students who, otherwise, may not have had such an opportunity.
“Our iJag program is focused on building connections and opening doors for students who may not think they have access to,” said Katlynn Edgington, iJag’s Education Specialist for Clarke High School. “We knew the need in Osceola and Clarke County was high, but doubling enrollment expectations in the first year was quite the surprise.”
What makes the iJag program stand out amongst other work-oriented programs is the structure and support the students receive while participating. Students are referred to the program through school administrators and teachers and are often those students who have experienced trauma or have struggles in school and at home. Instructors, like Ms. Edgington and Shyanne Provost at the Middle School, work with students on their focus and discipline for classwork, hoping to increase grades and test scores as well as everyday activities like personal responsibility, communications skills, and presenting themselves in a professional scenario.
“A lot of these skills are lost in environments where kids are just trying to survive,” said Edgington. “iJag works to mitigate these challenges and show a brighter future to all of our students.”
In the 2022-23 school year, Clarke’s iJag High School students had more than two dozen interactions with local employers including Altec, Reuters, Clarke Electric Cooperative, Clarke County Development Corporation (CCDC), and more. For Middle School students, employer engagement focused on soft skills where they learned about successfully navigating the workplace. They worked on mock interviews and reflected on the qualities that will help them be successful as leaders.
“Altec had the honor in hosting a group of local iJag students this spring for a meet and greet of our facility,” said Nathan Grismore, Human Resources Manager at Altec Osceola Body Plant. “We’re excited to be part of the iJag program and look forward to learning more about the growth, success, and how we can continue to support them in the future.”
Last year there were 43 students in the high school program as well as 43 in the middle school program – Over 80 students altogether. According to Program Manager, Colleen Theis, this is outstanding for a first-year partnership, typically expecting a total of 30-40 students in the entire program in the first year. In 2023-24 the iJag team anticipated 50-60 students enrolled and are already exceeding those numbers.
With the exceptional enrollment in the program there comes the need for additional support and funding. While program directors and specialists are required through iJag to raise funds on their own, local donations and volunteers are always accepted. In 2022 the program received a base funding donation from the CCDC with the promise to increase support in 2023.
“The CCDC’s support of our students has been overwhelming,” said Edgington. “When we budgeted for this year’s special incentive programs and student events, we were looking at numbers in excess of $2,500 to make it all happen. The CCDC stepped up with a grant of $5,000, approved at September’s Board meeting.”
In a unanimous vote, the CCDC Board approved the $5,000 grant – double iJag’s request – to help the program with the entire year’s funding associated to special events and support for the students. This money will go to cover material costs like iJag shirts the student will wear to special functions as well as the funding of trips for the students, additional school supplies, other clothing, and lunches.
“Outside the obvious benefits of the world-of-work experiences these students receive,” said Bill Trickey, CCDC Executive Director. “Lightening the financial load on the iJag directors and specialists is going to help them focus on increasing the successes for all of the participants.”
In 2023-23, alone, along with the interactions with local businesses and organizations, the iJag program also brought their student cumulative GPAs up almost a full point across the board, decreasing “F,” or failing grades by more than 75%.
“Additional support is always welcome,” said Ms. Edgington. “As we continue to increase the opportunities for our most at-risk students, we will be looking for that next inspiring partner to show these kids that their futures really are bright.”