WAGNER — Gov. Kristi Noem sat in a classroom at Wagner High School Tuesday morning, Oct. 1, listening to stories from students about their lives.
Some students told her about growing up in broken homes. Some talked about family members with addiction issues. The stories were often emotional and highly personal.
And they also talked about the benefits they experienced participating in the Jobs for America’s Graduates program at Wagner High School, where they found encouragement and guidance in navigating the often intimidating path of preparing for life after their time in a high school classroom ends.
“(Jobs for America’s Graduates) is a national program I’ve known about for many years, but to be here in a school district where it’s been so successful? It’s pretty inspiring,” Noem said following a presentation and question and answer session with students and faculty.
JAG is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing dropouts among young people who have serious barriers to graduation and/or employment, according to the organization's website. The program has been around for three decades and has helped more than 1 million young people stay in school through graduation, pursue postsecondary education and secure quality entry-level jobs leading to career advancement opportunities.
The Wagner program is one of only four in the state. It currently has 62 students enrolled in the program in grades 7 through 12, said Renee Van Der Werff, one of three teachers associated with the JAG program at the school. Some students in the program have particularly difficult home circumstances that hinder their academic and social progress, but Van Der Werff said barriers to a successful high school experience can vary greatly.
“Barriers can be things like, 'Nobody in my family has ever gone to college, and I want to go. So how do I learn to navigate that system?' Or they can be issues related to income. Or issues related to grades,” Van Der Werff said. “They’re not all the same.”
The students in the program are enrolled in standard classes like their fellow schoolmates, but they also take part in the JAG program. They take part in the program as they would an elective course, but the program is only open to students facing barriers that may inhibit their progress or participation in regular school programs. Students are encouraged to sign up and then their application is reviewed to see if they would make a good candidate for the program.
And over the past 11 years, the program has seen many students move on to success.
Neil Goter, Wagner's high school principal, said the timing of the meeting with Noem actually prevented several graduates of the program from attending the meeting to give testimony. They were all too busy in the next stage of their lives.
“All our success stories — they’re in the military, they’re sitting in a college classroom, they have a job. Maybe on a Friday or a Monday (they could be here), but on a Tuesday, it was impossible,” Goter said.
But the students gathered for the meeting with Noem were already an example of the benefits of the program. Those who may not have had the most stable home life or other difficulties are engaged in both JAG and other activities at the schools, something that may not have happened without the program, according to the testimonies of the students.
Noem said she would like to see more done at the state level to support programs like JAG, which could help students from areas all over South Dakota.
“We’ve been looking at opportunities to expand it to more schools statewide. There are several areas of the state that really need a program like this, and it fits right into what I want to do to build the next generation,” Noem said. “Give them the supportive network to help them be successful.”
Noem said she would like to see more funding for such programs, but also said she would explore any way to support students trying to better themselves and teachers and school districts that make the effort to do so.
“I’m actually thinking I need to get some legislators down here to meet with these students. I need them to get passionate about a program like this, because if the state’s truly going to offer this kind of asset, we’re going to need their support, as well,” Noem said.
Noem said the personal stories from the students provided an emotional insight into both their lives and the support system programs like JAG offer.
“They’ve got a support family around them. That’s not typically a role state government can come in and fill, but teachers do it every day," Noem said. "So how do we support those teachers with good programming that allows them to fill the needs these kids have? That’s really what it’s about.”
Goter agreed that both teachers and students find the program to be more like a family than a specific school program, and that makes the students feel included and supported. That alone can make the difference to a student who needs it, he said.
“It’s a second family," he said. "It’s wanting to come to school for a reason. They feel loved, they feel supported. They feel like people want them here."