La Joya High School

La Joya High School was awarded the Program of the Year award at the 2018 Career Development Conference. (Photo courtesy Tolleson Union High School District)

 Catherine Garcia’s classroom at La Joya Community High School is at the far end of a long corridor that looks like any other high school hallway. Outside her door, a small sign reads, “Learn to thrive.” Much like the high school’s name, La Joya, which is Spanish for “the gem,” the students in her classroom are gems themselves. Hidden gems.

Garcia works with a mix of 42 high school juniors and seniors who are all involved in Jobs for Arizona’s Graduates program, a class that focuses on students’ career and college readiness based on the standards set by its national affiliate, Jobs for America’s Graduates. La Joya’s program, coordinated by Garcia, won Program of the Year in 2018.

The program – which is available at every school in the Tolleson Union High School District (TUHSD) and is known by the acronym JAG – targets at-risk students facing challenges that may prevent them from completing their education and pursuing post-secondary opportunities.

Personal, economic, academic and family-related issues are some of the factors that often take a toll on student performance, JAG President Graciela Garcia Candia said.

“Our primary focus is looking for young people that have multiple barriers to their success. We want to make sure we help them with all of the resources we can to break through those barriers,” Candia said. “We want our young people to graduate high school with the necessary skills for them to be successful in their career pathway.”

Some of those skills mentioned by Candia include leadership, time management, critical thinking and employability. JAG students work toward mastering those competencies by participating in activities under their school’s “Program of Work,” which consists of goals for the school year that cover four areas: social, leadership, career and community service. Activities range from creating resumes and cover letters to carrying out food, blood and voter registration drives.

“They’re problem solvers. They’re advocates for their own future. They will be prepared for any employment or career opportunity. They’re going to be confident. They’re going to be well prepared for interviews,” Candia said, describing the qualities students walk away with upon completing the program.

On top of becoming college and career ready, JAG students, who otherwise would not be involved, also gain a sense of belonging, both at school and in their communities.

“I think for students who were not engaged, weren’t in a club, hadn’t tapped into their leadership skills – I think that this class encourages them. They’re excited to come to school and feel part of the school,” Garcia said. “I think when we’re doing these activities, when we’re planning events, they know that they need to be here because other people are counting on them to be here.”

According to Candia, the students who are the most disconnected tend to be the ones at the bottom of the middle of the class, academically speaking.

“They’re the kids that are not really doing much. They’re not engaged. They’re not your star athletes. They haven’t been successful in engaging in programs,” she said.

“We then focus on all of their strengths and work on their strengths. Once they graduate, they’re community minded, civically minded, involved in opportunities within their community,” Candia said.

Students are even more inclined to connect with the community and explore career opportunities when they hear JAG alumni success stories, Garcia said.

“We have a few prominent elected officials that are JAG alumni. Our state representative, Diego Espinoza, is a JAG alumni. The mayor of Tolleson, Anna Tovar, is also an alumnus of JAG,” she said. This is something Garcia said is cultivating a strong leadership base for JAG.

“We’re creating an army of leaders.”