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35,000 students and counting …

What started as one woman’s passion to help every student succeed has led to the most sought-after bridge between education and
the workplace.

Passion Goes a Long Way

In 1999, former state department of education official Laurie Phelan felt there was a gap between what was being taught in the classroom and the skills needed for the real world. Through her work in education reform, charter school legislation and school-to-work programs, she relentlessly advocated for solutions that would help every kid, not just most kids. 

At the time, graduation rates were declining as the result of low student engagement. Phelan’s passionate reputation began to precede her, and soon she was given the keys to drive a new type of statewide program that would improve academic benchmarks in the short-term, but also improve students’ character, emotional well-being and confidence while giving each of them a plan for the future. 

Former Iowa Governor Vilsak and former Iowa Lieutenant Governor Sally Peterson introduced Phelan to Dr. Kenneth Smith, CEO and president for Jobs for America’s Graduates to introduce intervention and prevention solutions that schools needed. 

The initial launch of iJAG was slow–moving. Given iJAG was a nonprofit 501(c)3, the organization was limited in resources, budget and staffing. Following the initial request for proposal (RFP) to schools statewide, there were crickets. 

Phelan turned to her mother to help with program operations as she and a colleague began to forge a new path in public education. Knocking door-to-door (literally) and “cold calling” were two primary strategies to generate business. According to Phelan, a little “ blind faith” ended up giving the organization the boost it needed.

When iJAG was finally at the table with local superintendents and principals, the pitch went something like this: 

  • A new curriculum model will tie education to the knowledge and skills needed for the workplace 
  • Unique, nontraditional teaching strategies are strong intervention practices that will uplift students who are dis-engaged
  • Learner-centered classrooms will ensure we meet the needs of every student
  • School-to-community relationships and experiences will spark emotional fulfillment  
  • Leadership and soft-skills development will improve student confidence  
  • and a smile, paired with, “Wait until you see the ROI!” 

And their response? Well, no great story starts the way you would think.

After some grit and persistence, the first “YES” came in June 1999 when Washington High School in Cedar Rapids agreed to become the first official iJAG school. That year, we served 150 students across six programs. Finally, our passion for serving every kid was becoming a reality. 

After the first year, stakeholders were seeing ROI from their investment, more young people were experiencing short-term and long-term success and more helping hands were starting to go up. No matter how fast we were growing, or the recognition that we were experiencing, it was always our mission to help “Every Kid. No Matter What!” 

For the past 24 years, we have not only continuously innovated the way we serve young people and those who serve our young people, but we’ve created an essential bridge between education and the workplace. 

Here are just some of our achievements from the past 24 years: 

  • In association with our national affiliate, we are recognized by the National Dropout Prevention Center as a model program.
  • Recognized as the only statewide organization recognized by the Iowa Department of Labor as a Quality Pre-Apprenticeship Program.
  • Served as a collaborative partner on special initiatives with other youth- and education-focused organizations such as Future Ready Iowa, the Governor’s STEM Council Advisory and the National Governors Association Work-Based Learning Core.
  • Joined IGNITE Pathways to introduce the state’s first-ever CTE/iJAG program model with a regional learning center in Woodbine for students in west-central Iowa.
  • Since 2013, iJAG has consecutively earned the “5 of 5” / “6 of 6” State Award in recognition of our ability to meet all national performance metrics related to graduation and employment.

Today, you’ll find iJAG in 155 middle school and high school classrooms (a long way from six!) that serves more than 7,200 students. 

In January 2023 following Phelan’s retirement, Dr. Wendy Mihm-Herold became iJAG’s second President & CEO. Mihm-Herold has a decorated history of exemplary leadership working in public and private nonprofit sectors that spans nearly 35 years. This, in combination with her shared passion to serve every student, has ignited a new era for our organization. 

As a way to honor our founder and to ensure continued growth for the next 25 years, we launched an exclusive giving program called Phelan’s Circle. Through funding support from employers, groups and individuals, we will be able to support a six-year growth plan that will drastically impact lives as well as improve the current and future state of Iowa. Click here to learn more about Phelan’s Circle.