DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa's high school graduation rate is just shy of 92%, according to the Iowa Department of Education.
iJAG, which stands for Iowa's Jobs for America's Graduates, is working to raise that.
"We're hoping that they can walk away with hope. That they have the people and support that they need to be all that they want to be that they have adults that want to make sure that they can be successful," said Laurie Phelan, President and CEO of iJAG.
Nearly 400 students from around the state gathered in Des Moines on Tuesday for the iJAG Leadership Development Conference. They had the chance to listen to local professionals share their sometimes-unconventional paths to their careers.
Haylie Powers, a student at Woodside Middle School, wants to be a politician, and she says that iJAG is giving her the skills to do it.
"It got me more focused on what I want to do for the world and what I want to do for my country," Powers said.
During the keynote speech, students heard from Dr. Tim Gutshall, Chief Medical Officer for Wellmark Blue Cross & Blue Shield. His message to them: they are not just defined by their jobs.
"If they're good at getting better at everything in their life, then they'll become better football players. If you want to become a better football player, commit to becoming better academically. Commit to becoming better socially," Gutshall said.
That idea resonated throughout the conference: workers don't need to be defined just by what they do during their eight-hour workdays, and iJAG is meant to give a space for students to develop personally, as well as professionally.
"So much of our culture is set up to tell people things that they can't do the rules, the policies," Phelan said. "We're not willing to say, 'Try it, try something different.' You're going to make a mistake. Clean up the mistake and move on. So this program gives them an opportunity to do all those things with a lot of safety around them."
The iJAG program started with high school juniors and seniors, but it has expanded quite a bit, as middle schoolers attende the conference.
Phelan told Local 5 they even looking at expanding into elementary schools, too.