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State Superintendent of Education John White makes a point while speaking at the annual meeting of Jump Start, which allows high school students to get workforce training in addition to regular academic classes, Tuesday Jan. 23, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.

State Superintendent of Education John White has quietly become the co-founder and chairman of the board of a national nonprofit group aimed at connecting low-income high school graduates with solid jobs.

The organization, called Propel America, is led by White and Paymon Rouhanifard, former superintendent of the Camden, N.J., school district.

Papers were filed with the Secretary of State's Office in September spelling out the organization, which White calls a tax-exempt public charity.

White and Rouhanifard, the group's co-founder and CEO, spelled out the effort's goals during a 40-minute session at a recent, elite gathering in San Diego sponsored by Arizona State University and Global Silicon Valley, a social venture investment fund.

But the undertaking is little known in Louisiana even while pilot projects are being launched in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

White said Propel America is one of two nonprofit groups he belongs to, noted that other top state officials do the same thing, and said the work does not detract from his role as state superintendent.

He is also a member of Chiefs for Change, which includes state and local school superintendents nationwide.

"If there is a time when I have to do exclusively business for one of the two nonprofits, I would take a day off," he said Tuesday. "But the mission for the work is completely critical to the children of Louisiana." 

He said he did not publicize his role with the group because the pilot projects involving 50 students are not an operation of the state Department of Education.

Gary Jones, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said White's role warrants attention.

"I am not sure that all BESE members are aware of it yet, but some of us have recently become aware," Jones said. "I am sure at some point we will have a discussion about it."

White told the San Diego gathering that, aside from those with comfortable upbringings, there is a "huge group of kids" who do not have a viable plan for after high school and lack any system that can connect them with good jobs and education.

He said Propel America "is an attempt to develop a system of connectivity to good jobs for students who have done everything we have asked."

Backers say the program targets students who do not qualify for TOPS or other college scholarships, are reluctant to get saddled with college debt but who could fill high-wage jobs that employers are eager to address.

White said Tuesday, "Our country has swung and missed for our high school graduates."

He added, "If you are a young person growing up in Baton Rouge, you should be able to come out of high school and know that there is a short, affordable path to a good first job."

According to the organization's website, Louisiana and New Jersey are forging pathways to a credential in skilled trades and health care, including pipe-fitting and work as an electrical helper.

White said students are recruited for the program as high school seniors based on attendance and a willingness to work.

Kristen Smith, executive director for Louisiana, is working on the pilots in the Ascension, Jefferson and West Baton Rouge Parish school districts.

The aim is to increase the pilots from 50 students initially to 1,000 per year for the next three years.

Under the plan, within a week of high school graduation, students enter a "boot camp" for three to six months working with industry veterans and teachers.

Financing is cobbled together from a variety of sources.

The aim is to pave the way for high school graduates to learn the skills they need within 12 months, and to create a low-cost template that can be duplicated nationwide.

Partners in Louisiana include Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, Baton Rouge Community College and Associated Builders and Contractors.

White, who has held the job since 2012, is the longest continuously serving education superintendent in the nation.

He has survived pitched battles with former Gov. Bobby Jindal over Common Core and with Gov. John Bel Edwards, who in 2015 vowed to replace White but has been unable to do so.

White, who is paid $275,000 per year, operates on a month-to-month contract because of an impasse on BESE, which hired him.

Rouhanifard, who was superintendent in Camden, N.J., from 2013-18, has won praise for academic improvements made during his tenure running the hard-scrabble district.

Another leader of the effort is Sophia Pappas, former head of early childhood education efforts for public schools in New York City, who works for the George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

White is a former deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education.


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.