When the Jobs for America’s Graduates – Kansas (JAG-K) program at Salina South High School needed a new Career Specialist last summer, an interesting candidate stepped up to the plate.
Who better to understand the impact JAG-K can have on students than a former participant in the program? And who better to catch Salina South students in need of help than a former star catcher on the school’s softball team?
The evidence-based program helps students prepare for post-secondary education and employment opportunities. JAG-K programs across the state, serving approximately 4,000 students, reported a graduation rate of 97 percent for the Class of 2020.
Paige Parker, a 2016 graduate of Salina South, was hired in July to assume the leadership of the JAG-K program when former Career Specialist Melissa Gates became the new business teacher at the school.
“Mrs. Gates called me in April and said ‘I’ve got the perfect opportunity for you!’” Parker said. “This is right in line with my talents and what I am passionate about. I’ve always wanted to help people, and this allows me to do that.”
Gates wanted to help find a replacement who would be qualified and passionate about helping students.
“After being the Career Specialist here for the past six years, I knew Ms. Parker would be the perfect person to provide a smooth transition for our students,” Gates said. “Her experience as a JAG student has allowed her to make a difference in the lives of her students.
A Career Specialist is the teacher who provides individual and group instruction to the JAG-K participants in the classroom using the competency-based JAG National Curriculum.
“As a new specialist, Ms. Parker has done an amazing job building relationships and making connections with her students. There is no doubt that she has a passion for helping young people. I have enjoyed watching her learn and grow into the young professional that she has become.”
Parker said that while in high school, she dealt with chronic migraine headaches and was impacted by deaths to relatives.
“I did not thrive in school. I dealt with a lot of depression,” Parker recalled. “I was on truancy all four years,” I was a passing student, but I missed tons of assignments. I lacked motivation and struggled to be able to focus my attention on school.
“I struggled to feel like I fit in a group when I was in high school. But JAG-K gave me that group where I could connect with my peers. When I came into the JAG-K classroom, I knew that that was my safe space. No matter what type of day I was having, I could count on everyone in there to help me get better.”
Despite her struggles, Parker managed to not just stay eligible for sports, but to stand out on the softball diamond and the volleyball court.
“I kept a good line of communication with my teachers and coaches, letting them know that I was trying and doing the best I knew how to manage my migraines,” Parker said. “Opening up that line of communication let them know what I was dealing with and that I would catch up on my schoolwork as soon as I could.
“Having learned how to dialogue and advocate for myself in high school, I really continued that in college. By communicating with my professors, they understood ‘She really cares. She will work hard.’”
Parker played softball at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., where she majored in Health and Wellness. She is now working to pass on some of the skills she learned through experience.
“I try to teach the students to advocate for themselves and communicate effectively,” Parker said. “That may be emailing their teachers, working ahead, getting work made up. I’m showing them how to stay connected when they are struggling.”
Parker said she senses a ‘silent cry for mental-health help’ at Salina South, an issue exacerbated by the pandemic.
“I’m really working on helping students to recognize their emotions and to tap into healthy coping mechanisms,” Parker said. “I want to give these students the things that I wish I’d had at their age. How to process their emotions, and that it’s ok to have emotions. How to feel comfortable with who they are. How to be themselves and utilize their gifts and talents.”
Parker knows that having walked in their shoes, she can help current Salina South students.
“It’s great because I already know what to expect,” Parker said. “I saw a great example in Mrs. Gates, and I carry the things she taught me into my teaching. I know the benefits JAG can have for my students. I understand how important it is just to listen to my students and let them feel heard, because I didn’t feel like I was heard as a student.”
JAG-K is a multi-year, in-school program for students in grades 7-12 that offers tools to successfully transition students into post-secondary school, the military, or directly into the workforce with marketable skills. 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.
The 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization is a state affiliate of the national JAG program network which operates in 40 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, Goldstein Charitable Trust, John Deere, the Kansas Health Foundation, the Kansas State Bank Commissioner, Synchrony Financial, the Taco Bell Foundation 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.