The first day that Nathaniel Schmitt walked into Holly Harmon’s class at Aurora High School to find out what Jobs for America’s Graduates was all about, Harmon vividly recalls what he was like.

Nathaniel Schmitt and Holly Harmon (Photo courtesy of Holly Harmon)

“He struggled to make eye contact. He was very nervous and just seemed very hesitant and not confident,” says Harmon.

Since going through the program, also known as JAG, Harmon says she has seen a different side of him. Schmitt is the first to volunteer to do anything JAG related, whether it is making phone calls, setting up trips, or something else.

“We take quite a few field trips. He has had to work diligently to keep his grades up and to turn in his assignments while we are gone for so many field trips. He has made a dedicated effort to take that responsibility on – to not let his other teachers down. I can see a lot of responsibility, a lot of dedication. His grades are, I think, better this year than they even were last year. He really is one of the true faces of JAG. Just to see him grow and mature has been such a delight. It’s really what the program is about,” she says.

Jobs for America’s Graduates is a nonprofit organization with about 98% of Missouri JAG students graduating from high school. The program helps disadvantaged kids with interpersonal skills, finding a career, team building, their employability skills, and public speaking.

“When I talk about the program, Jobs for America’s Graduates, I describe it as kind of like a flashlight into the future. It’s a career and college readiness program that works as a whole class, in small groups, and then individualized instruction. So, we look at a student from an academic perspective and then a personal development perspective,” says Harmon.

Most of Missouri’s students in JAG come from severe poverty, a rough home life or they have some trauma they are dealing with, for example.

Schmitt is no exception. He grew up in the state of California with his mom and three siblings.

“She wasn’t the best mom. I lived there until I was like nine. We would always be jumping from house to house. I never had a stable home to live in. Many of the people that my mom were with were very abusive to me and my siblings,” Schmitt says.

He says he took the brunt of the abuse.

“Out of the siblings I was living with then, they were all white. It was more of a racial thing – the people that my mom were living with. My mom was white. I am Hispanic. It was more of a racial thing of why I was getting abused,” says Schmitt.

At the age of nine, he called his aunt and told her what was going on. One week later, she jumped in her car and drove from Missouri to California. She picked him up and they never looked back.

“I was super relieved and happy I finally got away from that,” Schmitt says.

After a couple months of living with his aunt, he says she died of a drug overdose. Schmitt ended up in the foster care system. He was adopted a couple years later by a loving couple.

“They are the best,” he says. “I have heard this saying before, life is like a coin – you only get to spend it once. The way I look at it is that the past is in the past and I have a future. That’s what JAG kind of focuses on.”

Schmitt just finished his sophomore year. He has plans to continue taking the high school program and wants to become a traveling welder after he graduates.

“When you are in high school – other classes – they don’t really focus on what you want to be or want to do when you get out of high school. They just sit you down at a desk and make you learn all this stuff just to prepare you for whatever you might do. JAG – it helps you realize and it helps you to focus on what you want to do,” says Schmitt.

Harmon just wrapped up her first year serving as the JAG specialist at the school. Last year, she led the JAG program in Crane. She has been a teacher for 26 years – 24 of those years in Aurora.

“Both jobs found me but this program has been what I have been wanting to do my entire education career. JAG is like the perfect fit to teach all the skills that we don’t get to teach in all the other courses. What I have seen as a teacher, it’s helped me to personalize learning and get to know kids on a very personal level like a counselor or a mediator sometimes, all difference kinds of roles. Just to see kids start from where they are, which could be high academic, low academic, struggling with behavior, struggling with attendance, whatever, and then to see them buy into a program and to change their ways so they become employable one day so they can be in relationships down the road and be successful, they can be parents down the road and be role models for their kids. It really does my heart good every single day to watch kids – it’s called productive struggle – to get through the ugly moments to get to the good stuff. Every single kid I’ve had has grown in some form or fashion, whether it’s academic, whether it’s behavior, whether it’s just making contact, confidence. It’s my privilege to teach this program here.”

This fall, more than 100 JAG programs will be in about 70 Missouri schools.

“What schools who are missing out on who don’t have JAG is a true connection for kids of all levels to be able to be successful – not only in high school but beyond. It’s a place for kids to fit in; to learn what they want to do later; how to be successful now,” says Harmon.

She cites Indiana having JAG in every high school.

“When Mike Pence was governor there, he put it into every high school. I would really like to hope that we get to the point in Missouri where every kid across the state has the chance to enroll in JAG,” she says. “It is taxing emotionally because I do get connected with my kids. When they go through hardships, their parents get divorced, there’s a car accident that requires them to go through rehab and just watching them struggle to find their way. I look at them and see what they are going to look like at 24, at 26, at 40. We talk about long range goals. It really is a privilege to be a JAG specialist.”

Schmitt also returns the praise.

“I think the only downfall in JAG is that there is not more of it. I think that every school should be offered this program. It focuses more on the kids. It’s more of a family-type thing. I think the biggest thing that makes JAG, JAG is actually the teachers. They build that one-on-one connection with you. They get to know you and you get to know her. That’s what JAG is.”

To hear the full interview with Holly Harmon and Nathaniel Schmitt, click below.

This is a four-part story series about Jobs for America’s Graduates-Missouri. Tomorrow’s story will feature JAG Specialist Brandon Johnson and JAG student Emily Young from Hillcrest Education Center in Lebanon.

Earlier stories:



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