JOBS for AMERICA'S GRADUATES

The Fourth Annual Best of Philanthropy Awards Honoring Student Group Champion—Swansea High School JAG Students

Since 2010, Columbia Metropolitan Magazine and the Central Carolina Community Foundation have teamed up to present the Best of Philanthropy Awards to honor people, businesses and groups in the community who serve passionately but quietly, not for accolades or fame but because they believe it’s the right thing to do. Each year, nominations are accepted from the community, and winners are chosen in five categories: individual, family, group, student/student group and local business. The Community Foundation presents the winners at its Annual Celebration and awards a $500 grant to each winner’s charity of choice.

Jobs for America’s Graduates is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students focus on academic success and career readiness. In more than 30 years, JAG has helped nearly three-quarters of a million young people graduate from high school, pursue postsecondary education and secure quality entry-level jobs leading to career advancement opportunities.

The JAG program is found in more than 30 states across the country and is coordinated by the Department of Employment and Workforce here in South Carolina. Currently in its seventh year, the program has served about 5,500 students in 26 schools across the state, and it boasts a graduation rate of 94 percent of its students.

Tammy Jones coordinates the JAG program at Swansea High School, a school in rural Lexington County where 80 percent of the kids are on free and reduced lunch. An English teacher at the school, she was asked to take over the program from her predecessor five years ago, and she says it was the best decision she’s ever made. “It’s so rewarding to be able to work with kids in a program that helps them develop holistically, and where I can work with them on an individual basis,” she says.

The JAG program at Swansea is big on community service, which Tammy says teaches students the soft skills they’ll need in the workforce, and it also helps build their self esteem. Even though many of the kids themselves are struggling, they started a food pantry at the school, helping to feed 60 to 65 families biweekly, and the entire school participates in canned food drives to help stock it. The JAG students support Families Helping Families during the Christmas season, and they started a school pledge drive to encourage their classmates not to text and drive. They distribute ribbons at school for breast cancer awareness, and they participate in the Palmetto Health Foundation Walk for Life.

They also host a school Red Ribbon week with guest speakers speaking about drugs and their dangers, and they attend the annual “End the R Word” rally for Special Olympics at the State House. Additionally, they have just started a program mentoring middle school students, encouraging them to stay in school as well, which was inspired by a Choice Bus event that they hosted there last May. At the event, a bus was set up with classrooms on one side and prison cells on the other, starkly driving home the consequences of choosing to drop out of school.

Fifty-three students are in the program for the 2013-2014 school year, but each year Tammy receives more than twice that number in applications, which speaks to the esteem with which the kids regard it. Even though 50 percent of the students in the program are in the bottom 25 percent of their class, the Swansea JAG program doesn’t promote itself as a dropout prevention program. “Our kids are kids at-promise,” Tammy says, “not kids at-risk.”