Focus on the future

AmeriCorps members help local students shape post-graduation plans

Multiple conversations ricochet through Phoenix Charter School’s Future Business Leaders of America classroom on a fall morning. Teens are exploring personal finance websites, creating posters for a holiday party at the local senior center and talking about raising money for next spring’s state FBLA competition in Portland.

Co-teachers C.J. Bryant and Diana Juárez thread among students, supervising activities. They aren’t the only adults in the room. So are Nicole Jaki and Erik Wood, who, from a short distance, could almost be mistaken for some of the kids they’re here to mentor.

Wood and Jaki are AmeriCorps members hosted by Douglas County Partners for Student Success. Phoenix is one of the sites they visit regularly on their quest to improve college and career opportunities for local students.

AmeriCorps members Erik Wood, far left, and Nicole Jaki, seated just above the open laptop computer, help Phoenix Charter School students navigate some websites.

On this particular day, Jaki is having an extended one-on-one session with a boy studying budget tips on Wood circulates through students working on projects in twos and threes. Mostly, they talk about the day’s tasks. But given an opening, Wood slips in a question about the future.

“Is college something you’ve thought about at all?” he asks one student. Told that the topic isn’t discussed at home, Wood casually mentions that he’s available to talk about it if the student is interested.

“In here, kids don’t want to feel like you’re pushing them toward something,” he said before class. “You ask leading questions, and once you see they express a desire, you ask if they have any ideas on how to achieve that.

“If it’s their own idea, they are more likely to follow through with it.”

Helping students generate ideas about their futures is a top priority for Wood and Jaki. Joining them in this effort are two AmeriCorps members employed by Phoenix – Erika McIntyre, who arrived in Douglas County a year ago via DCPSS, and Jocelyn Valencia. All four are key elements of Phoenix’s transitions programs for students seeking education beyond high school, according to Thomas McGregor, the school’s chief operations officer. McGregor has supervised and managed the Phoenix/AmeriCorps partnership for nine years. In that time, he’s helped to direct more than 20 members.

“By having an adult they can connect with and count on for solid mentorship throughout their school year, students are more likely to attend more often and be successful in school,” McGregor said.

This is Wood’s second year as an AmeriCorps member in Douglas County. He reflected that while the first year was a matter of helping to build a program “from the ground up,” this second year is all about cementing partnerships with Phoenix and South Umpqua High School – and looking ahead to expand mentoring partnerships  with other Douglas County schools.

Jaki, in contrast, is in her first year as an AmeriCorps member. A native Hoosier, she earned bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and management at Indiana University last spring before moving to Oregon. She was ready to experience a new geographic area and to take a position that enabled her to immerse herself in a lifelong passion for working with youth.

“I really want to help students find out what they want to do once they graduate, whether it’s a career or college – helping them plan and complete short- and long-term goals,” she said.

Short-term goals might be completing classes or seeking part-time jobs. Taking a longer view, Jaki is prepared to assist students in finding internships or job shadow opportunities, as well as helping fill out college applications and post-graduation jobs.

Jaki realizes that an essential tool for reaching those goals is to build meaningful relationships based on respect and trust.

“To gain that trust, you don’t want to tell students what’s right and what’s wrong. You need to step in their shoes,” she said.

School programs such as Early College and ASPIRE are useful ways to help kids navigate their school-to-career journeys. The AmeriCorps members take the lead in those programs. They hook up with students not only in Phoenix classrooms, but also through South Umpqua High School’s Lancer Academy. The latter is an online credit recovery program for students who may need to retake a class or return to high school for remaining credits.

AmeriCorps members also visit the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Umpqua Valley to help with the Be Great By 8th program, which helps middle school students develop skills for high school and beyond.

McGregor describes AmeriCorps members’ involvement as “a major asset” for Phoenix students.

“Without the energy and ideas of these amazing folks joining our team each year, I am unsure we would have the success we have today,” he said.

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