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Jobs for Mississippi Graduates Inc. helping students stay in school

Saving dropouts, saving money, strengthening the workforce

Joe Haynes is on a crusade.
The executive director of Jobs for Mississippi Graduates (JMG) Inc. is working to reduce the high school dropout rate in Mississippi, which hovers around 40% for seventh graders.

“We look for the kids in the back of the class and try to turn them into stars,” explained Haynes.

Since 1991, JMG has been the Mississippi affiliate of the Jobs for America’s Graduates’ (JAG) Program, the nation’s largest, most consistently applied model of school-to-work transition for at-risk and disadvantaged youth. “This is the most comprehensive dropout prevention program that I’ve known about in my 30-plus years in education,” said Haynes.

JMG’s program has grown from 13 school districts three years ago to more than 50, primarily in historically black communities. At each site, 35 to 45 students in grades 9-12 are recruited to participate in the dropout prevention program and employability skills classes.

“There are three major barriers to students completing high school: pregnancy, poor grades and attendance problems,” said Haynes. “We know there’s something that makes these kids tick, and we go after it.”

In the last five years, JMG has worked with more than 1,000 students per school year, and reports a graduation rate of 94% in Mississippi, compared to 90% nationally.

“We don’t take all the credit, but we have a retention rate of 80%,” said Haynes. “That means we can take a kid in the ninth or tenth grade and they’ll stay in school.”

After program completion, JMG monitors the students for a full year. In 2003, 26% of students who completed the program were enrolled in a community college. “We know they do better when they get some encouragement,” he said.

The Department of Education-backed program costs school districts about $1,200 to $1,500 per student, and is often subsidized by grants and other programs. The money is usually recouped within a year or two, said Haynes.

“Under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula, which funds school districts to Level 3, schools lose money if students drop out,” he said. “If you put 25 potential drop-outs in this program and we’re able to save those kids, the plus to the district would be $80,000 — after paying for the cost of the program. School districts won’t see it until the second year. But if you do nothing and lose those students, and lose that money, it adds up year after year and before you know it, the school district has to raise taxes just to keep up because they still have the same classes and requirements, but the students aren’t there to support the infrastructure.”

Because high school dropouts typically earn nearly $10,000 less per year, JMG also has a dropout recovery program geared to help the former students earn a GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma.

“If a kid drops out of school, it’s an issue we almost can’t correct,” said Haynes. “Any kind of completion that can move a student into a field or higher education is a plus for the state.”

In addition to helping dropouts study for the GED, JMG teachers also work with them on social skills.

“The kids that drop out of school are usually not the most desirable kids that principals and superintendents want in their schools,” said Haynes. “Maybe they were troublemakers. We work with them to let them know why having a GED is not enough. When they graduate, they’ll know the reason why it’s important to dress properly, to get to work on time, to speak properly and be honest, and why having integrity is so important.”

JMG hires, trains and maintains a staff of 44 teachers, usually aspiring or retired schoolteachers who have 15 students per class, three classes per day.

“We do more than teach,” said Haynes. “We get mentors for these kids. We help with community service projects. We’re always looking for jobs for them.”

Having a good job helps keep young people out of trouble, Haynes pointed out.

“Most Parchman inmates are dropouts,” he said. “We know how tough it is. We also know how expensive it is to house prisoners. It runs about $20,000 a year. There’s no doubt this program is cost effective.”

JMG’s third program, School-to-Careers, is geared to help seniors graduate from high school and find placement in an entry-level job that will lead to a career and/or post-secondary education.

“If teachers care about kids and follow our curriculum, they’ll see a remarkable turnaround in one year,” he said. “And we guarantee that if you hire one of our kids, you’ll come back to us again and again.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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