Ten years ago, Michigan was struggling as much as anywhere in the United States. There was no end to the recession in sight, and the state’s famed automotive and manufacturing industries were facing an uncertain future. The communities that depended on those industries were suffering from layoffs and a diminishing tax base, which hit school districts in turn. For places like Benton Harbor, a small city in the lower peninsula that had below-average high school graduation rates even in the best of times, a crisis seemed imminent.
That’s what compelled a group of community leaders to bring the nationally acclaimed Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) program to Michigan. Aptly named Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates (JMG), the program improves high school graduation rates and prepares students for success post-graduation.
In their initial program for 76 students at Benton Harbor High School, JMG leaders focused on helping young people achieve one of three options: postsecondary education, employment, or military service. Their program has since expanded to reach more than 3,000 students across the state. In 2017, they became a State Acceleration grantee of America’s Promise Alliance as part of its GradNation campaign to raise high school graduation rates to 90 percent.
“We saw the challenges playing out around us,” said Kristin Harrington (pictured left), the executive director of Youth Solutions, Inc., the statewide nonprofit that runs JMG programming.
“Fewer available jobs and a diminishing tax base had a direct impact on school districts and student success outcomes,” she continued. “This program came in and said, ‘Let’s really focus investment on our young people.’ That success was contagious.”
While many pathways programs engage with students in after-school capacities, JMG puts representatives in schools and meet with students during the day. The program became part of these young people’s education.
A daily JMG course offers students a national employability skills curriculum, while emphasizing career exposure and awareness to Michigan’s highest-demand industries. Students receive elective credit for participation, and they benefit from a range of additional services such as leadership development, work experience, and remedial education.
A large part of their curriculum involves simple exposure: opening young people’s eyes to the possibilities that exist for them.
“We’re trying to instill meaning and awareness to all the other work a student does,” said Harrington. “They might go to math class and wonder, ‘Why am I learning algebra?’ But if the career you want to pursue in, say, construction, will have you using those skills every day, you think about it differently. We get them to understand how the work they’re doing in school is related to what’s coming next.”
JMG-certified instructors also coach students on “soft skills” like interviewing and resume writing, and they set up visits to local employers, so students can see firsthand the kind of environments they will be welcome into with the right qualifications—a high school diploma first among them.
As Harrington made clear, none of this would be possible without smart partnerships and community-wide collaboration.
The connection to JAG, which is also an America’s Promise partner, gave JMG a built-in name recognition from the start. It also provided an essential infrastructure for their program’s services. JAG works from the top down, getting buy-in and support from state governments first, and that became the backbone of JMG’s expansion. JMG then partners with school districts and adult education providers to place certified teachers in schools.
After the inaugural Benton Harbor program delivered on its promise (seniors in the program have achieved 100 percent graduation rates four years running), other communities sought to replicate the success.
A crucial partnership with the state’s workforce investment system, known as Michigan Works!, allowed for access to district leadership and employers within the community. “We’ve never worked alone, and we never will,” said Harrington.
Another formative collaboration came from the state’s Talent Investment Agency (TIA), Michigan’s equivalent of a Department of Labor. The TIA provided a significant investment in 2012, which kickstarted JMG into a new level of engagement with young people. Thanks to that funding, and the newfound connection to the state’s biggest workforce-building system, JMG has since increased their student enrollment by 630 percent, and it can promise young people a direct line to Michigan’s growing job market.
Michigan might have struggled with unemployment a decade ago, but today they have the opposite problem: an estimated 811,000 jobs are expected to open in the state through 2024, many in tech-related fields facing talent shortages.
With an average salary of $60,000, this is the next generation of middle-class Michigan careers, and with their State Acceleration grant from America’s Promise, JMG is hard at work preparing the state’s high schoolers to rise to those opportunities.
Seventy percent of these young people identify as economically disadvantaged, and many also often contend with a raft of outside challenges that may be barriers to consistent school attendance and graduation: transportation problems, volatile family lives, pregnancy or parenting, and even homelessness. But the broadened horizons can be inspiring.
“JMG means that I want to come to school every day, stay positive and keep it moving forward,” said one 17-year-old student from Woodcreek Achievement Center, a Lansing-area JMG partner.
Michigan recently passed an important threshold: just over 80 percent of their high school seniors graduated in 2017. But among the schools being served by JMG, that number is 98 percent. With 10 years of growth behind them and a bright employment future in the state, the organization is preparing to bring that success to as many school districts—and as many young people—as possible.