Expanding program in Nebraska tries to fix education gaps

Originally Published: May 20, 2023

Expanding program in Nebraska tries to fix education gaps

Nebraska educators are hoping that a program being adopted by an increasing number of schools may help close some of the education gaps that exist in the state.

Jobs for America’s Graduates, also known as JAG, helps students connect what they’re learning in the classroom to the real world. And, supporters say, it has a compelling track record of helping improve graduation rates and overall grades. 

Nebraska educators continue to grapple with a learning gap from the pandemic as well as the education gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

The Nebraska Department of Education found that there are numerous factors that contribute to an education gap, such as a student’s readiness to learn and lack of intervention to help these students, but there are also factors beyond students and teachers’ control, such as lack of funding for updated textbooks and technology and lack of development in teaching practices. 

While results of the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores revealed that Nebraska students fell behind in math and reading during the pandemic, previous state assessments show that students in socioeconomic and racial subgroups and have faced disparities in education for some time.

The JAG program is a for-credit class elective that helps students develop skill sets to overcome challenges that they face while also exposing students to companies and career paths. The JAG program originally started out in three schools in Nebraska in 2019 and is expected to expand into 72 programs by 2024, said Matt Wallen, vice president of community impact and analytics for the United Way of the Midlands, which helps fund the program. 

More than 40 states use the JAG program, according to its website. 

One of the early adopters of the program in Nebraska was the UMÓⁿHOⁿ (Omaha) Nation Public Schools school in Macy, a district that the the Nebraska Department of Education has identified as “needs support to improve.” 

“UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation is one of our original programs and they do it great,” Wallen said. 

“They do hands-on learning as far as a community garden; they learn the ethnic heritage of the food they grow as well as the nutritional value and they sell the food to their community so they understand the business component of it,” he said.

The UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation school also uses the JAG program to help students get a head start in their careers. Through JAG,  UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation is able to equip students with useful skills before graduation and allow them to explore various career fields that they might want to pursue regardless if it requires higher education or going to a trade school. 

According to Wallen, the JAG program has three primary components: Project-based learning outside of a traditional classroom setting; employer engagement to help students get on-site experience; and trauma-informed care to meet students where they are at and understanding the barriers that they’ve had in life and academics.

Nebraska schools using he JAG program have seen benefits already.

“The first couple of years, we had a 100% graduation rate and this past year we had a 98% graduation rate,” Wallen said, adding that the program is expected to reach 100 percent again this year. 

Math and reading proficiencies have also gone up for many participating students because they can relate what they’re learning in the program to other classroom subjects, he said. JAG works with school districts to make sure that students are on top of their school work.

“They look at, for example, buying a car. They look at a Honda and a Lexus and they look at, ‘OK so, this is how much you need to earn and maybe the career you need and then the type of education to obtain that career,’” he said. “The math is all embedded in it around the calculations and figuring that stuff out so it has a more practical application.”

Depending on the school, students can start taking a JAG program class as early as middle school. Career specialists, who also are certified teachers, work with upwards to 50 students throughout the semester. They connect them with employers and career-pathways while also showing them what they should wear to an interview, how to create a resume and give them tips for public speaking. 

Auburn Public Schools is another district that recently joined the JAG program. David Patton, superintendent of Auburn Public Schools, helped introduce it in 2021 after learning about the successes other schools had with JAG and their students. For Auburn, the JAG program was a necessity to show students that there are more options after graduating than just immediately going to pursue a degree.

According to the Nebraska Department of Education, Auburn is classified as a “great” school district with visible test scores for the three core subjects: math, language arts and science. Science has the highest average score at 74 percent while math and language art are above 50 percent. 

“It’s a little too early to say if our numbers for test scores have gone up because of JAG, but I think there has been overall improvement,” Patton said.

For Auburn, students who are interested in the JAG program have to submit an application that asks them what their goals in life and career are and have them commit to fulfilling and finishing the program. 

“It gives so many great opportunities to all students for all their future pathways whether it is with a career or with navigating a two or four year degree,” Patton said. 

Students at Auburn are so interested in the program for next year, the school had to add another JAG class, Patton said. 

For Nebraska school districts, there is another big benefit of the JAG program.

“JAG is provided at no cost to students as a result of the generosity of our community,” said Shauna Paolini, state director of JAG. “We strive to keep our program costs at roughly $1,500 per student”.

In addition to the United Way of the Midlands, JAG receives funding from the Nebraska Department of Labor, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, employer contributions, as well as donations from foundations and communities. 

The United Way of the Midlands helped introduce the JAG program in Nebraska in 2019 after Nebraska’s Commissioner of Labor John Albin discussed with then-Gov. Pete Ricketts the program benefits, including helping students graduate, motivating them to attend college and helping them get better grades in general, Wallen said. 

The JAG program is just one way Nebraska educators are trying to improve instruction to bridge the education gap. 

At the UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation Public Schools, educators are constantly trying ways to help students learn better, especially in a post-COVID world by helping students figure out the learning styles that best suit them, taking more time on difficult subjects and implementing a new supplemental educational program to keep students on track and understand the concepts they are learning, said Joe Wanning, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction.

With a 67% attendance rate and low academic scores in science and math, change needed to be made to the curriculum to support students and the Omaha Nation community, Wanning  said.

“We’ve been working on closing the gap by using evidence-based instruction in all of our classrooms,” he said, noting that scores for the three core subjects (math, science, and language arts) are very low and need extra focus to see improvement. Evidence-based instruction is generally seen as more hands-on learning and asks students to tie what they are learning to real life scenarios or other subject areas, according the the Department of Education. 

In another attempt to improve education, the UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation Public Schools district opened up a career academy in 2020 that provides training in six areas: automotive, construction, CNA and nursing, early childhood education, culinary arts, entrepreneurship and business, Wanning said. The goal is to prepare students for life after high school and promote community involvement as well. By combining real-world experiences with school subjects, UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation schools use hands-on learning and showcases the world that exists after grade school.  

Programs to help close the education gap are newer to Nebraska and don’t exist in every school because of funding disparity, said Jeanne Surface, an educational leadership professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. 

“I have seen these divides pretty up close,” said Surface, who worked as a principal in Wakefield and Ogallala and as a superintendent in Meeteetse, Wyoming, before becoming a professor.

In Wakefield, Surface said she worked with Wayne State College to establish a professional development school and the Annenberg Rural Challenge Initiative to improve rural students’ educational outcomes through funding and reform. With these changes, the Wakefield school system was able to see changes such as providing better equipment for students, like updated textbooks and supplies to supplement student learning.

“I felt (the education gap) really significantly in Wakefield, Nebraska,” she said. 

While Surface was a principal there, a large group of immigrants arrived within one year. Because many of the students did not speak English, they had to be added to the English Language Learning program but the program did not have enough resources to adequately help these students, she said. Surface was able to tap into federal and state program funding but still had to have all teachers lend a hand. 

“We did everything we could and everything we had,” Surface said. “We had students help other students, reach out for funds in other places, and send a teacher away to get second-language education.”

She said it’s important for Nebraska schools to keep trying new programs to help students find their passions and connect what they learn in the classroom.

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