As high schools reopen, they face the difficult job of shepherding students from now until June without losing them. One in five leaves Maine schools before graduating. Others drop out by disengaging from learning, even if they pass enough classes to graduate.
There is a program that has had success not only in keeping students in Maine high schools through graduation, but also encouraging and supporting them through the start of a postsecondary education or a job. Jobs for Maine Graduates, a private nonprofit established by the Legislature in 1993, operates at 64 school sites, with ties to more than 170 towns and cities. JMG now serves more than 4,000 students each year.
On a recent visit with the Bangor Daily News editorial board, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell said JMG should be in every Maine high school. Given the program’s success rate, it’s hard to disagree.
Maine’s graduation rate is 86 percent, yet JMG participants — who are identified as at-risk for dropping out — graduate at a rate of 95 percent. Some 57 percent of high school graduates in Maine enroll in college; 47 percent of JMG graduates go on to college.
JMG students are chosen for the program if they face at least four, often related, barriers to education. The most common are: family or social issues (60 percent of JMG participants); high absenteeism due to disinterest in school (51 percent); underperforming academically (46 percent); and living in a low-income household (42 percent).
Dan Lee, superintendent of Brewer schools, saw the program operate in SAD 3 where he previously served as superintendent, and he brought it to Brewer. He serves as vice chairman of JMG’s board of directors.
He said a JMG specialist employed by the organization, not the school, teaches classes during school for which participants earn credit. Teachers and staff recommend students for the program, but participation is voluntary. There also is a clublike aspect to the program, Mr. Lee said, so students often will be part of after-school events. And the specialist tracks and meets with students through the summer.
The fact that the specialist — often a younger adult — is not employed by the school allows him or her to serve as a combination of a teacher, guidance counselor and mentor, Mr. Lee said.
In addition to teaching such life skills as managing a checkbook, creating a resume and completing a job interview, the program introduces students to the business world. Follow-up surveys show participants stay in Maine and find work, often earning more than their peers, Mr. Lee said.
Brewer pays $24,000 toward the program, which has 50 participants. The rest of the funding comes from private sources. Some superintendents have cut JMG because of the local cost, a move Mr. Lee thinks is a false economy.
“You’ve got kids falling through the cracks,” he tells other superintendents. “We’ve got dropout issues. Why would you not have the program?”
While mandating that schools use JMG is not practical, it should be in every Maine school.