Traci Martinez wants to spread the word on Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) and the positive results it's having on students.

“I don’t think a lot of people in the community know about it, and that’s something I want to focus on this year is just getting JAG out there. A lot of people don’t understand or know what the program is,” Martinez, who is a JAG-K specialist at Garden City High School, said Tuesday.

JAG-K is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization that partners with students facing various barriers to success, helping them graduate high school and get on a successful career path. The programs are expected to provide support to students in 71 schools across the state during the 2017-18 school year. Funding for the program primarily comes from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars, administered by the Kansas Department for Children and Families. JAG-K also relies on private funds from contributors including AT&T, Archer Daniels Midland Co., John Deere and Amerigroup Foundation.

JAG-K is an affiliate of the national JAG program that operates in 33 states and territories. In addition to school districts, JAG-K partners with DCF and the Kansas State Department of Education.

Martinez, a 2011 GCHS graduate, said the program helps at-risk kids, which comes with a negative connotation.

“Anybody can be at risk. It doesn’t necessarily mean these kids are bad kids…” Martinez said, adding that students in the program can be struggling in a class, have parents who didn’t graduate high school, be the first person in their family to graduate, never have had a job before or be a dependent child, meaning they help raise their family.

JAG-K had 664 students overall in the 2015-16 school year and had a 93 percent graduation rate — three percent higher than the standards, according to JAG documents.

Martinez has been the JAG-K specialist at GCHS for the last three years and recently was named Regional Specialist of the Year.

“I was pretty surprised,” she said of receiving the honor. “I would like to think that I’m pretty good at my job. I really love my kids and believe what JAG does as a program.”

Martinez is based in a classroom at GCHS, but is not employed through Garden City USD 457 as a teacher. Her degree is in social work, and she has been trained through JAG to provide individual and group instruction to  students using the competency-based JAG national curriculum.

“I’m not considered a teacher. … I do facilitate the class, but a lot of what we do is student-led,” Martinez said. “I can mediate, I can facilitate, I can help them with resources, but basically, a lot of what JAG is is the kids kind of taking on their own, and they have a lot of say in what they learn and what is taught.”

Martinez teaches 10th through 12th grade, and her role is to serve as a mentor and keep students on track.

“Something I really push with my kids is having someone they can trust and confide in because I think a lot of teenagers would benefit from having kind of a mentor mixed in with high school,” Martinez said.

In her class, life, work and verbal communication skills are taught, as well as relationship-building.

“We talk about a lot of things in the news. For example, last year, we talked a lot about the election,” Martinez said. “I like to teach my kids how to think, not what to think, so how to agree to disagree and have some of those harder conversations, and basically get them prepped for life after high school.”

Last school year, Martinez had 16 students graduate. After students graduate, Martinez will follow up with them once a month for a year to see how they are doing and if they have a job or need one. The majority of her students have a full- or part-time job, which she believes proves the program is working.

JAG has been in Garden City for the last three years and in Kansas for the five. JAG’s southwest Kansas region was presented the “5 of 5 Regional Award” for the Class of 2016 by JAG’s national board of directors during the 34th Annual National Training Seminar in Las Vegas on July 12. Southwest Regional Director Brad Lingafelter accepted the award during the seminar.

“It’s the highest award you get from JAG,” Martinez said.

The 5 of 5 Award recognizes a region when all programs meet or exceed the performance measures in five categories: graduation rate, successful outcomes, employment, post-secondary enrollment and job placement. JAG has a 12-month follow-up period with all seniors as part of its successful research-based, data-driven national model.

“This is the first time in our short JAG-K history that an entire region has earned the prestigious 5 of 5 Award,” Chuck Knapp, JAG-K president and CEO, said in a news release. “I know Brad and his team are proud of the award, but even more pleased that it represents successful outcomes for our students.”

The southwest region is comprised of JAG-K Career Associations in Stafford Middle School, Stafford High School, Kingman High School, Pratt High School, Great Bend High School, Garden City High School, Kiowa County Middle School, Kiowa County High School, Liberal High School and Holcomb High School.

For more information about JAG-K, visit www.jagkansas.org.

Contact Josh Harbour at jharbour@gctelegram.com