Gov. Brownback visits students in West High workplace prep program

Jacqui Ayala recently learned about elevator speeches – a 30-second spiel you might give to someone you just met, perhaps on an elevator, to introduce yourself.

She learned about the importance of eye contact, of active listening and of presenting herself in a confident, memorable way.

On Monday, the West High School senior got to practice hers on the governor.

Gov. Sam Brownback visited West High to meet Jacqui and about two dozen other students enrolled in Jobs for America’s Graduates, a program designed to better prepare at-risk high school students to graduate and succeed in the workplace.

“This is a complex society,” Brownback said. “If you get out and you can’t do anything, you don’t have any particular expertise or you don’t have higher education, life can be pretty tough.”

The 45-minute stop was one of four visits the governor and Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker made Monday to talk with students about the new program. It launched this fall at 25 schools across the state, including five in Wichita.

Brownback, wearing a shirt and tie, dress pants and black cowboy boots, sat in a chair Jacqui had reserved for him by hastily scrawling “Governor Brownback!” on a piece of notebook paper. He smiled and shook her hand.

Seconds later, Brownback and the students, seated in two facing rows, practiced their elevator speeches as J.J. Selmon, the program director, kept time.

“The activity is similar to speed dating – a similar concept,” Selmon said. “The impression you make in that first 30 seconds is how they’re going to remember you for a lifetime.”

Brownback played along, learning about each student as the participants rotated clockwise around the chairs. Jacqui told him she wanted to be a pastry chef. Trenton Lambky said he wants to go into welding.

When the whistle blew and it was the governor’s turn to talk, he said: “I’m Sam Brownback. I’m governor of the state of Kansas. I want to help Kansas to be a better place – grow the economy, have a better education system …”

Selmon said the exercise illustrated some of the job skills students will learn in the new program, which is being administered by Communities in Schools, in partnership with the Kansas Department for Children and Families and the State Department of Education. The class is an elective for juniors and seniors, who were selected based on their interest and teacher recommendations.

Jacqui, who has a 1-year-old son and hopes to attend culinary school after graduating, said she likes the program so far.

“I really do think it’s going to help,” she said Monday. “We just started, but I’ve already learned a lot.”

Brownback said he’s glad Kansas is launching the program, which he said would give students the specific skills they need to graduate and go on to college, technical schools or careers.

“Nobody is alone in this world. We all kind of depend on each other,” he said, adding that successful societies are like stone walls.

“The better and stronger you are, the better and stronger wall we build, the better our society,” he said. “That depends on you, and that depends on us to provide you the opportunities.

“And that’s what we’re trying to do with this (program), provide you with an opportunity.”