Members of Madison Consolidated High School’s award winning Job’s For America’s Graduates program are (from left): front row — Kailyn Hostetler, Caroline Kirby, Laney Cox, Abigail Kelley, Daesja Jay and JAG Coordinator Whitney Matthews; middle row — Nick Center and Abby Hanson; and back row — Jacob Smith, Carson Denton, Will Heitz, Luke Ommen and Adrian Guzman. (Submitted photo)
Members of Madison Consolidated High School’s award winning Job’s For America’s Graduates program are (from left): front row — Kailyn Hostetler, Caroline Kirby, Laney Cox, Abigail Kelley, Daesja Jay and JAG Coordinator Whitney Matthews; middle row — Nick Center and Abby Hanson; and back row — Jacob Smith, Carson Denton, Will Heitz, Luke Ommen and Adrian Guzman. (Submitted photo)
Madison students earned four state-level awards through the Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) this year, capping off a strong but unconventional season for the program.

After submitting virtual entries for the annual state JAG competition due to the virus pandemic, Madison students won a mix of individual and team awards. The team of Laney Cox, Abigail Hanson and Daesja Jay took first place for Project Based Learning (PBL), Jacob Smith took second place in Public Speaking, Caroline Kirby won an honorable mention for outstanding senior and the Madison chapter finished second in Marketing.

Some competitions were done through video submissions. Others, like Kirby’s senior presentation, were conducted through a live interview, said Madison JAG coordinator Whitney Matthews.

This year was the first that PBL was done at the state level, as students were asked earlier this year to design a learning project geared toward career exploration. Cox, Hanson and Jay compiled information for upcoming high school students into a sleek Google Sites page, then, working with students in the middle school college and career class, spent a day teaching them about goal-setting and making the most out of Madison’s resources. Matthews said the group then took it a step further by assigning JAG mentors for every middle schooler in the class.

As for the marketing competition, the team of Nikki Gatke, Kelly, Kirby and Cox used social media and digital skills to shoot and edit a promotional video for Madison’s JAG program that could be shared across platforms. The video was shared with school counselors who are now using it to promote the program to sophomores eligible for JAG next year, Matthews said.

Only one take was allowed per submission for Public Speaking, in which participants had to speak to judges as if they were convincing their school board to start a JAG program. Matthews helped Smith record the presentation remotely and allowed him one extra take after his computer screen froze the first time mid-speech and ruined the recording, she said.

“He is really a great public speaker,” Matthews said of the junior. “That’s why I tell Jacob all the time ‘You’re going to be shaking hands and kissing babies later on in life.’ ”

Although apart for the rest of the school year, Matthews and her students have kept in touch through class and daily mentoring. The group has been meeting on Zoom twice a week for class and it’s apparent from those sessions how much they miss each other, she said.

“Half the time, most people will get off the call, and then I’ll have four or five students stay on the call and just be like ‘Can we just hang out talk?” Matthews said. “That’s what I told them, we’re missing you guys too. This isn’t just me, this is other teachers that miss you the same, this is hard for all of us.”

Matthews came along at just the right time for the program eight years ago, when it had gone through several instructors in a year and was in the process of being phased out at Madison. Only 13 students were registered out of the required 40 and she remembers being told to simply keep it under control for the last year.

But once Matthews took over, “everything clicked,” and by scheduling time 35 students had applied to join the program for the following fall, she said.

“These kids were not up to talking to me, trusting me, anything like that … I just felt like no one ever got in there and explained things the way they could be explained. Someone didn’t take the time to explain how great the program actually is and I know I was supposed to be phasing it out, but I couldn’t help myself,” she said.

Since then Matthews as helped students make big decisions on college, financial aid and employment, especially throughout the shutdown while major events were on hold. Matthews said she’s tried to keep students busy and focused since many feel out of place with their last years uprooted and their schedules looking uncertain for the foreseeable future.

“A lot of them are like ‘We missed out on the semester, basically. This isn’t just two months, this is a semester of our lives … these kids are genuinely worried about being prepared,” she said.

One key requirement of the program is for seniors to decide on post-high school plans — such as college, employment or military enlistment — by the end of May. Matthews said 13 of 18 seniors have made their decisions and most plan on some form of post-secondary school.

But even for the juniors, the pandemic has created confusion about standardized tests and other steps students are facing to be ready for their senior year, Matthews said. She spoke highly of her students this year, some of whom she’s gotten very close to over the course of their time in the program.

“Hopefully in the years to come we’re going to have similar groups that are just as motivated to do everything that these kids did,” Matthews said. “And I’m glad that this is the class that did it, because I do feel like a lot of the underclassmen look up to this class that’s graduating right now, so hopefully they gained something from that.”