Program combines educational, occupational assistance for students

Linda Hicks/Contributing Writer Published December 22, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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Linda Hicks/Contributing Photographer

Brenton Winn, a senior at Vilonia High School and father of a 6-month-old, works at Harps through the Jobs for Arkansas Graduates program, or JAG. It’s a partnership with the Arch Ford Career Academy consortium in Conway. Director Jason Burkman said the academy is the only one of its kind in the state.

VILONIA — Brenton Winn, a senior at Vilonia High School, doesn’t know what he wants to do after he graduates. His biggest concern is balancing school and work and providing for his girlfriend and 6-month-old child.

What is making a big difference in his life, he said, is his participation in the Jobs for Arkansas Graduates program — JAG for short — that helps students in grades nine through 12 stay in school and teaches them how to get a job and enroll in college.

The program is a partnership between the Vilonia School District and the Arch Ford Career Academy consortium in Conway. Winn attends core classes at the academy. Because he has a job, he is allowed to leave the campus early to go to work. He generally works between 15 to 20 hours per week and receives class credit for the work hours. Another plus is that there is little homework, he said. Most everything is done in the classroom.

“That makes a big difference,” he said.

A cashier and stocker, Winn generally works until about 9 or 10 p.m. at Harps Grocery Store in Vilonia. He doesn’t make a lot of money, but he is able to put some in the till for gas, food and a few items for the baby.

Also, JAG helped Winn get the job by showing him how to make a resume and taking him on a “field trip” to distribute copies of his resume. He was lucky to get the Harps job, he said, because it is only a few miles from his house.

“It’s a great place to work,” he said. “I look forward to going to work.”

Matt Brannon, produce manager at Harps, said it’s a win-win situation. Harps has the opportunity to employ students willing to learn and “loves the opportunity to help out the school and the community,” he said.

Winn said JAG has made his life a lot easier. It has also changed his attitude, he said.

“Dropping out of school wasn’t ever an option for me, but I was messing up and missing school. In the past few months, my attitude has changed, and it was needed,” he said.

After high school, JAG students receive follow-up contact for a year to make sure they are enrolled in a college, have a job or both. Winn said he appreciates the helping hand.

“I may go to college, but I will probably take off a year or so,” he said. “I’m thinking about going to ASU in Beebe — something in agriculture.”

The program works, said Jeff Hart, JAG specialist and campus superintendent, because it is relationship-based. Students are treated with respect, and the goal is to empower them. It is all about “success and keeping them going in the right direction,” he said.

Director Jason Burkman said the Arch Ford Career Academy in Conway began operation this year.

He is also director of alternative-learning-environment services at the Arch Ford Education Service Cooperative in Plumerville.

While some schools do offer JAG-type programs, he said, he doesn’t know of another one in the state like the academy. It is a collaborative effort, he said, between Arch Ford Cooperative; the Vilonia, Mayflower and Conway school districts; and the state Board of Education.

The idea for the program, he said, actually came from the school districts. He said JAG is a program committed to helping students overcome barriers to graduating from high school and to assist them in becoming college- and career-ready. JAG is designed, he said, for students who may have trouble working in a traditional classroom or those who are in danger of dropping out of school and those who are “job focused.”

The campus in Conway, he said, is more about intervention than being punitive. Thirty students countywide — 10 from each of the three school districts — may participate. Each district is required to run a bus to transport students to and from the Conway campus. While it could have been opened anywhere in the district, the campus was opened in Conway, Burkman said, because the city has more businesses and more work opportunities for the students. A major facet of the program, he said, is the school-to-work program in which students must get jobs and “see how the business world works.”

A new aspect recently added helps seniors who already have jobs, allowing them to continue taking classes on their respective campuses. Hart and Burkman were at Vilonia High School recently to explain the option to a group of seniors.

“The whole idea is to gain credit for what you are already doing,” Burkman told them.

This part of the program allows seniors to attend school on their home campus and leave school at 1:50 p.m., four days per week, to work or to do their school work. Participating students receive elective credits. A student who works 15 or more hours per week will receive two credits. Those working 10 hours per week may receive one credit.

Students are required to participate in a two-week class, which teaches them how to do a variety of things, including writing a resume, balancing a checkbook and quitting a job the proper way.

Students may work for a family business as long as it is a legitimate business. Employers will be contacted to ensure that students are working, as well as to help with issuing the student’s grade.

This new component is designed to assist high school seniors who already have jobs to work and maintain their grades by providing them with study time.

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