Multiple students, including one in a wheelchair, surround a workbench

JAG KY students presented to employees and human resources leaders at Parker-Hannifin, advocating for work cell modifications to help individuals with disabilities. A middle school student who uses a wheelchair helped the students identify barriers in the workplace.
Photo submitted by JAG KY

Max Laughlin graduated from Graves County High School in 2022. His journey to and across the stage was a challenging one.

“I never really liked school and my attendance was bad,” he said.

He found Jobs for America’s Graduates Kentucky (JAG KY) during his senior year. The program showed him the importance of education.

“My specialist helped me realize that a diploma was important for me to reach my goal of being a licensed plumber,” he said.

Less than a year after graduating, Laughlin is turning his dreams into reality.

“Today I am living my dream and just passed my test to be a journeyman plumber,” he said. “I know JAG is always there for me to help me.”

The program’s mission relates directly to its name: preparing Kentucky’s high school graduates with the skills to thrive in a modern professional environment.

The program assists students through college and career support during their high school years and beyond. It exists as a school-to-work transition program and is funded through grants and corporations in communities.  

According to George Stafford, co-executive director of JAG KY, this process empowers some of the most in-need students in the state to lead successful lives.

“These are students who want to succeed, and they may have had either trauma in their life or maybe they’re a couple of grade levels behind or it could be as simple as needing a ride to school,” he said. “We have selection criteria for the students that are in the program, and these are students that are starting to buy in and change the school for the better.”

And JAG KY has spread across the Commonwealth: nearly 4,000 students across the state participate in the program.

Stafford said the program takes a community-oriented approach to address challenges that are specific to the region.

“What we try to do is bring our JAG program in to serve students. But really, it’s to support the whole community,” he said. “We’re hoping our students will graduate, they’ll go out into the community, they will fill those needed positions, and then they will also make that community stronger.”

Marcie Hanson, another co-executive director of JAG KY, said it’s their goal to teach students to give back to their community.

“For them to be successful, that has to be a key component,” she said.

The program’s leadership component, its career association, focuses primarily on community engagement. Stafford said the career association empowers students to make a difference in their community.

“It really has them buy-in to the community and they feel a part of it,” he said. “As each county gets stronger, the state of Kentucky gets a little bit stronger, and that’s what we’re wanting to do: see Kentucky as strong as it’s ever been.”

Hanson said building a stronger Kentucky requires teaching young people to be leaders and to use their voices. She emphasized JAG KY’s focus on doing so.

“We start out with leadership components, just teaching them the importance of being leaders,” she said.

According to Hanson, information from JAG National shows its effectiveness through the numbers: 78% of students were employed full-time within a year of graduating.

“The last three years, our students placed second in the nation in project-based learning. We were in the top 10 in employability skills and prepared speaking and creative decision making,” she said.

A group of students and teachers smile and pose for a photo

JAG KY provides students with opportunities to grow as leaders, including the JAG National Student Leadership Academy in Washington, D.C.
Photo submitted by JAG KY

According to Dakota Carter, a junior at Elkhorn Crossing School (Scott County Schools), JAG KY assists students in achieving their dreams and fulfilling their destinies.  

“Even by taking a few minutes out of my day to conduct an interview or watch a TED talk about jobs and maintaining a job that we’ve discussed in JAG, I’m improving my overall quality and investing in my career future,” she said.

Stafford said that JAG KY is not an alternative to career and technical student organizations (CTSOs). Instead, he said partnerships among JAG KY programs and CTSOs at the school level provide students with unique opportunities to grow their knowledge, professionalism and skills.

“There is not one career pathway that would not benefit from having a JAG class or JAG program right next to it,” he said. “You’re learning the content that is being taught for a career in any career pathway, but with JAG, you have ‘How do I go and get a job? How do I finish the deal? I’ve learned what I need to learn now. How do I go out and be successful in my job?’”

Kyla Horn Preece graduated from the former Sheldon Clark High School (Martin County Schools) in 2016, and she attributes her success to the program as it empowered her to pursue leadership opportunities in her region’s nonprofit sector.

“I can’t think of a single thing that impacted me more than being a part of JAG KY,” she said.

Preece said JAG KY empowered her to find and use her voice.

“I avoided JAG for years because of the dreaded public speaking lesson, but once I had no other choice than to face this head-on, I realized that in front of a podium was where I felt at home,” she explained. “No matter what was going on outside of those walls, I could stand up in front of my peers and feel that what I had to say mattered. My voice mattered. I mattered.”

Scholarship opportunities made available to JAG KY students, including one specifically for education majors, contribute to students’ futures. The opportunities for education assistance are among the program’s many efforts to prepare students for life after school, Hanson said.

Preece was among many to seek scholarship opportunities her senior year.

“I applied for every scholarship my senior year and ended up receiving over 12 scholarships, one of them being the JAG national Kenneth M. Smith Scholarship,” she said.

As executive vice president, she hesitated to apply for the scholarship when she learned the president planned to apply. However, both students were selected.

“They had never picked two applicants from the same state, let alone the same school. If I had never believed in myself, I would’ve lost that opportunity,” she said. “When someone believes in you, everything changes. You’re no longer scared, you build self-esteem, you have the courage to step up and take risks.”