With 1.4 million students in the state, there are thousands still not graduating. What happens to them? Where do they go?

There is a state program that can help.

Donna Custard, president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Foundation, said The Jobs for New Jersey's Graduates is the state affiliate of the national Jobs for America's Graduate Program, which she described as the country's premiere dropout prevention initiative.

There are 35 affiliates implementing the program in 39 states. In New Jersey, the state Chamber of Commerce Foundation is the only organization authorized to implement the program.

The program keeps students in school through graduation, providing them with the skills training necessary to prepare them for success after high school, Custard said.

There are 11 programs throughout the state in 8 high schools and one non-profit organization. In Newark there are three programs in Central, Barringer and Weequahic high schools, and an out-of-school initiative with the Leaders for Life fellowship program.

There are additionally programs at the New Brunswick Adult Learning Center, one each at Carteret, Camden and Vineland high schools, and one at Pinelands Regional High School in Little Egg Harbor.

Custard said since the program started in the 2011-2012 academic year, The Jobs for New Jersey's Graduates has helped more than 1,900 students. Currently, the program services about 350 participants in all the programs available.

"What we look for and the actual eligibility requirements are students who have experienced significant life challenges to graduating from high school and entering the workforce," said Custard.

The National JAG office has defined 36 challenges that could potentially prevent students from graduating from high school. Custard said a student has to have at least five challenges to be eligible for the program. She said these include students from low- income families who have low academic performance, who are chronically absent, who have home lives not conducive to their educational goals and who lack motivation and maturity.

"But to be clear, these kids are incredibly smart," Custard said, "They're tenacious and they have a ton of untapped potential, but they're typically disengaged from school and they lack stability in their lives. That's where we come in, and we help to support them and get them trained for success after graduation."

She said teachers, guidance counselors and school administrators will compile a list of students who meet, on paper, some of the challenges. Once identified, Custard said, the students are then interviewed to take part in a four-credit elective course. Typically, the interviews are done in the spring so the kids can participate in the fall.

The program follows students for 12 months after they graduate to ensure they are going on to positive outcomes.

Custard said research done by Drexel University in 2017 about the JAG graduating class of 2015 analyzed its employment information, comparing JAG students to others across the country. JAG students were employed at a rate of 66.7% compared to 49.5% of the rest of the students, she said.

The researchers also found that post-graduation full-time employment for JAG students was 47.2%, compared to 26.7% overall, which was higher than their predicted rate of employment.

In New Jersey, almost every year since the graduating class of 2013, the state's JAG students have out-graduated their peers including those on the honor roll, AP students and other overachievers by anywhere from 6.6 to 53 percentage points, Custard said.

New Jersey is the only state in the country to take part in JAG that is 100% privately funded. Custard said there is no state or federal support, but the local program aims to change that.

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