AUGUSTA — An organization that helps Maine students stay in school and get a job when they graduate was awarded $200,000 in grant funding to start a program at Augusta’s Cony High School.

Jobs for Maine’s Graduates officials and Gov. Paul LePage announced Tuesday the program was one of just 30 nationwide, out of 1,100 grant applicants, to be awarded a grant by the AT&T Foundation. They said the grant will fund multiple years of a new Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program at Cony, where about 30 students already have enrolled in the program, which is meant to help students at risk of dropping out or otherwise not succeeding in school find academic success and graduate with the skills to get a job.

LePage praised the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program, which is already in many schools in Maine, noting 92 percent of students in the program graduate.

“That’s much better than everybody else is doing in the state,” LePage said of the graduation rate. “It’s the best bang for our buck, getting our kids through high school. The key is, they learn the life skills they need so they can become self-sufficient.”

Ann Veilleux, 21, of Unity, who was in Jobs for Maine’s Graduates programs while she was a student at Vassalboro Community School and Winslow High School, said she struggled in school and suffered from low self-esteem and an eating disorder before she joined the program. The Family Planning employee, who said she is the only high school graduate in her family, credited much of her success to the program and the skills and confidence its specialists provided her.

“It wasn’t until I joined Victor Esposito’s class I felt hope for the future,” Veilleux said of the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates specialist who works at Vassalboro Community School. Veilleux, who also praised Rebecca Lambert, a specialist at Winslow High School, for her help, urged Cony students who need help to consider joining the program. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Cony had a Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program previously, but it was eliminated sometime in the early 1990s because of budget cuts, according to Craig Larrabee, president of Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, a statewide nonprofit organization that serves about 5,000 students in grades six through 12 in 79 programs in Maine schools.

The program has grown, having served only about 2,500 students in 2008.

“We have a long waiting list” of schools that wish to add a Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program, Larrabee said. “Cony has been on our list for a very long time.”

Larrabee said AT&T has contributed about $500,000 to Jobs for Maine’s Graduates over the last seven years. The organization relies on a mix of private and public funding to help students succeed.

The $200,000 grant from the company’s foundation will cover the first three years of the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program at Cony. No local match is required. Typically, schools are responsible for 40 percent of the cost of a program, while Jobs for Maine’s Graduates covers the rest through public funds, including an annual state appropriation, and private donations it receives.

Jobs for Maine’s Graduates’ most recent state appropriation was about $2.6 million, contingent on the organization’s ability to raise an equal amount from the private sector. It exceeded the requirement, raising $3 million from private businesses and foundations this fiscal year, according to Lisa Gardner, director of stewardship.

Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said there is a proposal to increase state funding for the organization, and he encouraged other legislators to support “funding increases for JMG that are truly justified.”

“It’s a game-changer program that truly saves lives,” Pouliot said. “Many students wouldn’t make it but for JMG.”

Stewart Brittner, assistant principal at Cony, said the new program at Cony has grown from only a handful of students at the start of the year to about 30 now. He and Principal Kimberly Silsby said students are talking up the program to other students.

“It’s great for Cony,” Brittner said of the program. “It really appeals to students who might not be very comfortable in a traditional setting in a classroom and helps them build the skills they will need to be successful in life.”

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a 1967 Cony graduate, said he wishes the program had been around when he was in school, because he knew students who could have benefited from it. He thanked AT&T for supporting it.

“I’ve seen it work. It makes kids’ lives better,” Katz said, “the kids who otherwise might have fallen through the cracks.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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