Alicia Wade, the first high school graduate in her family, is busy these days with a demanding full-time job and first apartment.

She graduated early a year ago from Mid-City High School in Davenport and credits the IJAG, or Iowa Jobs for America's Grads, program for part of her motivation.

Wade, 18, was born to teen parents who didn't finish school. Her dad was in prison for several years. Her mom lives in Eldridge with her younger siblings.

When she was a student at Mid-City, Wade was enrolled in an IJAG class taught by Sarah Brennan. She learned basics about growing up, getting a job and a place to live.

Brennan is in her second year as an IJAG education specialist and is one of four in Davenport. The others are James Porter at Central, Aaron Sass at North and Cynthia Safford at West.

The foursome made an IJAG presentation at the Davenport School Board's committee-of-the-whole meeting in early January, and Superintendent Art Tate saluted the program. He also noted it is one district effort that exists in relative obscurity.

"This is an outstanding program," he said.

Job, life skills

In class, Brennan teaches life and job skills, including how to write a cover letter and resume, which tends to bore the students, she said. She also has advice for renting an apartment, signing a contract and what is expected in the way of a deposit. 

The program focuses on six skills: personal, leadership, communication, employment, job success and career development.

Brennan teaches juniors and seniors at Mid-City. She has four daily classes, with a total of 35 to 40 students in the program.

Students such as Wade are in IJAG until they graduate, then Brennan follows them for another year, offering continuing support to the students while tracking their job success.

In Davenport, more than 95 percent of the IJAG students graduate from high school and get additional schooling and/or a job.

This is a great return-on-investment for students, said Laurie Phelen, president and CEO of the program, which is based in Des Moines. The students in IJAG are very bright and talented, Phelen said.

"If we ignite their passions, they pay it forward," she said.

Wade said she loves her job helping clients at REM, a Davenport-based organization that provides services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She works in a group home and has three clients.

She is responsible for their transportation and personal care, working with clients who have suffered brain injuries or who live with mental illness.

"I work full time, lots of hours," she said.

'Learned helplessness'

When students are looking for jobs, IJAG teachers take them to the Iowa Workforce Development office, or they visit the public library to search for jobs online, Brennan said.

Some students have "learned helplessness" and lack motivation, the teacher said. She attributes the problem to a lack of personal support systems and inadequate role models.

For Wade, that is not the problem. She is determined to succeed and does not like to make excuses, even if her early life was a challenge.

Born in Davenport and raised by her grandmother in Decatur, Illinois, Wade returned to Davenport in junior high and attended Wood Intermediate School.

In high school, she started at the Kimberly Center, which also is where her parents met. She transitioned to Mid-City High School when it opened in 2014.

An honor roll student, Wade liked the Kimberly Center, because her classmates were close-knit and were confronting a variety of challenges. At Mid-City, she eventually bonded with teachers such as Brennan, as well as the school's case workers.

Wade graduated in January 2016, at the age of 17. Brennan said she wept at the ceremony, and the two continue to stay keep in touch, including during Wade's occasional visits to the school.

Career research

Teachers such as Brennan do in-depth career research and practice interviewing skills in their IJAG classes.

She gets help. For example, Davenport School Board member Julie DeSalvo, who works for MidAmerican Energy, recently volunteered at Central High School's program and conducted mock interviews with the students.

Although not all students find success through IJAG, Brennan said, most of them do, and she hears from many like Wade after they have graduated.

The kids may be complimentary, talking about how they used a resume and cover letter to get a job, even though they didn't like the class on resume writing.

For now, Wade is focused on her job, and she hopes to start classes soon to earn a medical-assistant degree. For the REM job, she has completed training in CPR, or cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, and in medication management.

She works second shift and enjoys the later time slot, because, "It lets me sleep in."

Most of all, Wade loves working with her clients.

"When I leave work, I feel like I've really helped someone," she said.

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