Of the more than 170 Hays High School seniors who will cross the stage Sunday afternoon, eight of them in particular overcame some incredible odds for the honor.

The eight are the first Hays High students to earn their diplomas under the Jobs for Graduates-Kansas program.

JAG is a nationwide nonprofit organization that partners with public schools to provide support for students who are at risk of not graduating.

Rather than a teacher, the elective course is overseen by a career specialist and incorporates mentoring, project-based learning, job shadowing, speakers and community service to help the students learn skills to help them succeed after high school. The career specialist stays in touch with the students for a year after graduation to offer further assistance and support.

Hays USD 489 entered a one-year agreement with JAG-K for 2018-19, putting up 10 percent of the cost of the program, or $6,500. AT&T also sponsored the Hays High program, Principal Martin Straub said.

Johnny Matlock, who retired as Hays High’s choral director after the 2018-19 school year, stepped in as the program’s career specialist.

“I always said if I was a going to do another job, I would want to do something that I felt was meaningful, and I like working with young people. It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Matlock said.

Having Matlock start the program at Hays High has been a big advantage, USD 489 Superintendent John Thissen said.

“For him to be able to step into that position, knowing the kids, we had a great advantage from the beginning. So much of it is based upon that interaction with that one person,” Thissen said.

The 40 students in the Hays High program were invited based on identified barriers they might face, whether academic or personal, and were at risk of dropping out of school. At the March 25 USD 489 school board meeting, Matlock told the board 10 percent of the JAG-K students are in the top 25 percent of their class, while 50 percent are in the bottom 25 percent of their class.

“They all have one thing in common. They have at least five obstacles to graduation,” he told the board.

One of those students was Taylor Schiffelbein. When she was younger, she wanted to be a doctor. But in eighth grade, her life changed and many times, she almost quit school.

“Now looking back, if I wouldn’t have taken JAG, there’s no way I could have passed or been graduating right now,” she said Thursday, the last day for seniors at HHS.

Schiffelbein was born in Garden City and her family moved around when she was younger — Stillwater, Okla., Arkansas City, Colby. It never gave her much chance to play sports like she wanted to, she said.

After her parents divorced, she and her mother moved to Hays when she was in the fifth grade, and she started playing basketball. Academically, she did well, scoring high on the ACT in seventh grade and joining a gifted student program.

The next year, however, coaches and teachers noticed Schiffelbein was acting different. In a visit with her and her mother, Keri, they voiced their suspicion that she was pregnant. A pregnancy test confirmed it.

“I had my son two months later,” she said.

Returning to her education, she still wanted to play sports, and went to Hays High rather than The Learning Center, the district’s alternative diploma completion program.

In her freshman and sophomore years, she played basketball. But injuries sidelined her. She tried softball, but, “I just couldn’t do it. So I quit sports after that,” she said.

Leaving sports led her to a different group of friends.

“I started hanging out with the wrong people and started getting in trouble and my grades started to drop,” she said.

“I was doing things people my age shouldn’t be doing, a lot of stuff that does not help when you want to go to college to become a doctor,” she said.

Last summer, she got an invitation in the mail to hear a program about a new class.

“I was like, whatever, I guess I’ll go, it’s a free meal,” she said.

But she and her mother were intrigued.

“This is literally a class that focuses on you,” she said.

“This school saw me and knew that I could do better. And I knew I needed that second chance,” Schiffelbein said.

Through the JAG-K class, Schiffelbein said, students learn real-world skills like how to build a resume, personal finance, and work and social skills. They performed community service including collecting food for Trick or Treat so Others Can Eat and organized a blood drive for the American Red Cross.

And even though there were times in this last year she wanted to give up, Schiffelbein credits Matlock, her mother and her son, Kenyon, now 4 1/2, for helping her stick with it.

“November was probably my worst month I’ve had, and every time he would text me, ‘Hey, you OK? Come to school,’ ” she said of Matlock.

“And so I came to school, I would talk to him, and he pushed me to be here,” she said.

Building those relationships and determining each student’s needs is the key to JAG-K program, Matlock said. Those are relationships that will continue beyond today’s graduation, as Matlock is required to stay in touch with graduates for one year.

“We all need people in our lives that believe in us and support us, and that are our cheerleaders. So I think that’s what it is, it’s kind of continuing to be that cheerleader in their future,” he said.

Straub said it’s been “heartwarming” to see a more positive attitude from Schiffelbein this year.

“I think she deserves a ton of credit for knowing that education is so very important for her to be able to provide for her child. Instead of doing something that seemed like a quick solution, she stuck it out,” he said.

Schiffelbein has a dream for her future again. She plans to attend Wichita State University and study accounting.

“My grandma has her own bookkeeping business, and I’ve always worked for her. I’m just really good at math,” she said.

“It’s going to be a lot harder than everything else. But now it’s something I can do. And I just have to do it,” Schiffelbein said.