The JAG Genius, A Special Q & A With Bridget Merriman
The JAG Genius
Q&A with Bridget Merriman
Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) is a non-profit program that works with young adults facing multiple challenges. Many students need guidance to finish high school to reach graduation, prepare for secondary education, and to learn and understand the job market.
JAG students are among those who were hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and are most likely to feel the devastating effects for years to come.
Yet, despite the disruption of the school year, suffering, and distraction of moving to virtual learning, JAG’s 40 state affiliates achieved a combined 96.8% graduation rate amongst its high school seniors.
A big reason for one of JAG’s highest graduation rates in its 40-year history despite the pandemic is the implementation of the JAG Genius.
EdNews Daily sat down with the Genius’ Manager, Bridget Merriman, and here’s what we learned.
EdNews Daily: What is the JAG Genius?
Bridget Merriman: The Genius is JAG’s learning management system (LMS). It is a place where JAG team members and our Specialists (JAG teachers) can learn and grow by completing a wide variety of professional development opportunities and training courses as instructed by JAG at both the national level and its state affiliates.
All the policies, handbooks, webinars, training, and logistical guidelines are centrally located in the Genius. This platform allows for a certain continuity and uniformity regarding how the JAG model works (the method in which we work with and educate our students) is delivered across our 40 state affiliates.
Genius also serves another crucial function for educators. For example, the program brings together a national community of educators with JAG team members from across the country. JAG serves about 76,000 students across 1,450 communities in the country. Sometimes, our specialists are often not just the only ones in their school, but they may be the only ones in a two to a three-hour radius.
Before COVID-19, teachers could go into their break room, have team meetings, and share lesson plans.
There’s not that community feeling without JAG specialists, and they are on their own in their school.
The Genius was designed to build a coffee break kind of atmosphere where educators can share information. Most of these conversations typically occur at lunchtime, during recess, or in a break room. Now our Specialists have the platform, and they have a community where they can learn and collaborate.
EdNews Daily: How did the JAG Genius help the Specialists during COVID-19?
Bridget Merriman: We launched the site in the summer of 2019, so when our Specialists had to transition to virtual learning, the JAG Genius became an essential marketplace of ideas. The Genius is intentionally set up similarly to a social media site, and through the discussion boards, teachers were able to share tips and lesson plans.
We quickly created “COVID-19 resources.” It was a new page with different resources that specialists could use, whether technology tools or videos on using Google Classroom. We started talking a lot about massive open online courses, which are all free and accessible online content, and shared different ways we could use it in our program.
Teachers also shared projects or lesson ideas that they found online. I believe that page was super helpful because it was just one place where they could go if they needed help, and immediately find resources and ideas.
After the initial lockdown, we utilized the Genius for training on different return to learning strategies from fully virtual, to hybrid, to entirely in-person. Therefore, our Specialists were prepared for whatever decisions their school systems made.
It also allowed us to focus on the mental health of both our specialists and students. Especially at the beginning, we created discussions about how everyone was coping and handling everything. We shared resources for taking care of themselves, and provided further options so they could get in touch with the right person for assistance.
EdNews Daily: Why content is crucial, but not enough.
Yes, the content is essential, but how are you building relationships via Zoom? How are you ensuring that you step away from your computer and go outside or stretch or move? Therefore, we did a lot of sharing of that content on the COVID-19 resources page.
Again, I can’t say it enough, but especially during COVID, if you were the only person in your school and ended up working from home, you became even further removed from all real-life interaction. And JAG’s most significant accomplishment is the connection for students to have a reliable, caring adult in their life. When you remove the crucial connection from a child’s life, we realized that we needed to react and care for ourselves. The JAG Genius helped our Specialists take care of their students during this time, but also themselves.
EdNews Daily: How else have you utilized the Genius?
Bridget Merriman: It has allowed us to connect with the Employer and Educational Partners who work closely with JAG. Some of our partners have featured modules (mini-sites) on the Genius where JAG team members can visit and learn more about the companies that support JAG and their mission. Partners can be given permission access to see what their module looks like and even respond to any questions or comments left by our team members. Partners such as Tallo and Everfi, who offer students scholarships, will message us and ask us to put any pertinent information on the Genius for our Specialists to pass along.
One remarkable story stemming from this relationship with our Employer Partners and the Genius is how students can post their resumes. She quickly saw the value of having her students use the Tallo app for posting their resumes, and she began using it in her class. Not long after, one of her student’s resumes was found on Tallo, and then the student was offered a job! Talk about come full circle!
EdNews Daily: Why do school systems need an LMS like JAG’s?
Bridget Merriman: JAG National knew that offering an LMS to their team members at all levels had an opportunity to be a game-changer. Offering the ability for staff to connect to others across the network to join in conversations on topics such as teaching best practices, while also having access to professional development opportunities seemed like a no-brainer.
It streamlined the onboarding and training of JAG Specialists and employees. Finally, it also allows us to collect massive amounts of data at the state and national levels. This data helps us get the information we need while also teaching us how to improve the Genius every day.
Little did we know at the time, however, just what an impact having this LMS would have as we entered a global pandemic, one that would change how school systems would function from now on.
The JAG Genius took on the challenge of being that one-stop-shop for all things “virtual” for our Specialists, Managers, and Council of State Affiliates.
Team members could look to the Genius for webinars on teaching in a face-to-face, virtual, or in a hybrid setting. They turned to us and their peers for resources on student engagement activities, strategy ideas for differentiated instruction and even attended sessions on self-care and co-care.
The JAG Genius became more than just an LMS—it was, and still is a lifeline.