Jobs for America’s Graduates-Kansas (JAG-K) prepares students for successful futures. For one northeast Kansas community, that investment is paying dividends in public safety.
A 2021 graduate of Hiawatha High School, Austin Coffelt has already provided significant service to the community. Though just 21, he has gained work experience in corrections and law enforcement. The next step in his young career, Coffelt will attend the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center 14-week academy in Hutchinson in February.
As a senior, Coffelt joined the JAG-K program at Hiawatha High School in its first year of existence. Upon graduation, he earned an associate degree in criminal justice from Highland Community College. Within a year of leaving high school, he was also working at the Brown County Jail in Hiawatha.
Starting a new job is challenging, regardless of the setting. Working in a jail was particularly daunting, Coffelt said.
“When I first started, it was kind of intimidating,” Coffelt said. “I worried that I wouldn’t be able to catch on quickly enough. But I had good co-workers and people who made sure I knew what was going on. So, my confidence built up there.
“The jail is a small jail, so I did some of everything, from booking inmates to cooking, cleaning. It was a great place to start my career and learn. What I learned there helped me adapt quickly to the police force. And I learned a lot just about working with co-workers and just how to work as an adult professional.”
After a year at the jail, Coffelt accepted an invitation to join the Hiawatha Police Department. After completing introductory testing, he earned a certificate that allows him to serve as a police officer for a year of “field training” prior to attending the training academy.
“I’ve been getting a lot of good experience,” Coffelt said. “I’m able to get a lot of hands-on training and mentorship. That’s helped me to excel, and I feel a lot more confident because of what I’ve learned.”
JAG-K is a multi-year, in-school program for students in grades 6-12 that offers tools to successfully transition students into post-secondary school, the military, or directly into the workforce with marketable skills. JAG-K provides opportunities for students to explore careers through employer engagement relationships. Those experiences may include field trips, job shadows, internships and summer or part-time employment.
Although Coffelt only benefitted from one year of the JAG-K program, he said it was influential to achieve his goals. He credits Hiawatha High School JAG-K Career Specialist Kelly Griswold for helping him pursue his plan following graduation.
“Under Mrs. Griswold, we studied our career choices and learned about how to succeed after high school,” Coffelt said. “She really makes you feel comfortable and lets you open up. We learned a lot about management of your life, money, time, having a stable foundation. She was really big on having a plan about where you want to go and learning the steps.”
“Austin always had his sights on law enforcement during high school and I wanted to help him achieve his goals,” Griswold said. “He was always driven and pursued the path we spoke about.”
For a year following Coffelt’s graduation from Hiawatha High School, Griswold stayed in touch with her former student on a plan of “follow-up,” a formal mentoring relationship that helps graduates transition to their post-high school plans. Coffelt has reciprocated by visiting his former school to talk about careers with current JAG-K students.
“Austin would still reach out if he needed something and that is what makes this job so rewarding,” Griswold said. “I’m so proud of his accomplishments and his willingness to come back to his old classroom and talk with current students about choosing a career path.”
Coffelt said he is receiving considerable professional development and training at the Hiawatha Police Department prior to attending the academy.
“I’m interested in taking lots of classes and really growing as an officer,” Coffelt said. “As soon I stepped into my role at the Hiawatha P.D. I knew I’d made the right decision. I’m very excited to see what the future holds.”
Kansas’ 112 JAG-K programs serve approximately 6,000 students in 47 school districts across the state. Participants in the program face multiple barriers to success that their JAG-K Career Specialist helps them overcome through a nationally-accredited, evidence-based model. Last year more than 900 JAG-K participants graduated from high schools across the state.
The 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization is a state affiliate of the national JAG program network which operates in 38 different states and territories. It is primarily funded through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant to the State of Kansas administered by the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF). In addition to school districts and DCF, JAG-K partners with the Kansas Department of Education. Other JAG-K funding sources include ADM, AT&T, EagleU, Evergy, Goldstein Charitable Trust, the JB and Anne Hodgdon Foundation, John Deere, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kansas Gas Service, the Kansas Insurance Department, the Kansas State Bank Commissioner, Kohl’s, Royals Charities, Synchrony Financial, the Taco Bell Foundation, the City of Topeka, United Way of Kaw Valley, United Way of the Plains and Walmart.
To learn more about JAG-K, visit www.jagkansas.org, ‘Jobs for America’s Graduates-Kansas’ on Facebook, and on Twitter at @JAG_Kansas.