Only about 26 percent of the most at-risk youth across our nation are working, and many of the other 74 percent struggle with predictable barriers. Their stories are like a young Delawarean, Marquis, who grew up in a low-income neighborhood and entered high school with academic skill levels well below most of his peers. He had excessive absences from school and lacked skills for any particular job path.

A few years later, though, Marquis has graduated with his high school class, works full time at a Wal-Mart Photo Center and is excited about plans to join the U.S. Army. He is one of more than 30,000 Delawareans who have benefited over the last three and a half decades from Jobs for Delaware Graduates, a program that offers counseling, guidance, skills development and experiential learning opportunities to the youth who need it most.

By 2020, more than half of all jobs in Delaware will require education and training beyond high school. JDG is part of the solution for helping more kids secure that education.

Through JDG, Marquis received mentorship, went on a college tour, took other field trips, participated in a school blood drive, visited a homeless shelter, and broadened his horizons. He developed a resume that received compliments during the interview for his new job and says that he uses the skills he learned in JDG on a daily basis.

Conceived in 1978 during Gov. du Pont’s administration, this initiative’s promise was evident from its first full year of implementation. Participants achieved a 90 percent graduation rate, and more than 80 percent of students went on to a job and/or college.

Within about two years, Gov. du Pont received a call from Vice President Walter Mondale about making Delaware an example for the rest of the country to follow. “Pete, I am usually not in the business of helping Republican governors,” he said, “but you’ve got something very special there, and we’d like to help.”

With a $2 million federal investment, and additional funding from the Rockefeller, Ford, and Charles Stewart Mott foundations, leaders in four other states built similar organizations off of Delaware’s blueprint under the leadership of Governor du Pont, who served as the first Board Chairman of Jobs for America’s Graduates.

The underlying principles of JDG are simple yet powerful.

We will hold someone accountable for ensuring that high-risk and disadvantaged students graduate from high school.

Those same individuals are responsible for working with these youth to successfully transition from high school into additional education and training, and/or the workplace.

We must have a highly motivational student organization geared toward students at the most risk for falling off track in school. Before Jobs for Delaware Graduates, more than 90 percent of these young people said they were never asked to join anything. Our Delaware Career Association has filled that void.

Gov. Carper took the lead in expanding Jobs for Delaware Graduates to almost every school in the state and helped implement the early high school application of the Jobs for America’s Graduates model.

Today, JAG, under the leadership of Gov. Markell, has broad support from a bipartisan group of governors, senior national business executives, labor leaders, and the education community. It operates in 32 states and will serve more than 50,000 of our highest-risk young people this year. These youth improve their academic performance, school behavior, attendance, and self-esteem. Over more than three decades, JAG has consistently produced remarkable results like those first demonstrated in Delaware:

Graduation rates of 90 percent or higher every year, from the inner cities of Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Phoenix to the most rural parts of the Mississippi Delta and Native American reservations in eastern Montana and South Dakota.

Nearly an 80 percent success rate in helping graduates secure employment, attend college, or some combination. Students are served for a full year after graduation.

The latest independent nationwide analysis finds that the program doubles the rate of employment for at-risk students. Further, it triples their rate of full-time employment. In our state, more than 200 employers rely on JDG to produce enthusiastic, well-prepared and valued employees.

This year’s 35th anniversary of JDG provides an opportunity to honor the many people who have made the program successful, while recognizing the tens of thousands of lives impacted by a path to a quality education and fulfilling career.

This op-ed ran in The News Journal (link)