‘Difference Maker’: Danielle Tuescher forges a connection with students through iJAG

Danielle Tuescher is an iJAG education specialist at Hempstead High School in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

Danielle Tuescher is an iJAG education specialist at Hempstead High School in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

Danielle Tuescher is an iJAG education specialist at Hempstead High School in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

Danielle Tuescher is an iJAG education specialist at Hempstead High School in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

Danielle Tuescher is an iJAG education specialist at Hempstead High School in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

Danielle Tuescher likes to see the immediate impact she’s making in the world, whether that’s through teaching yoga, working with families or connecting with the next generation.

In fact, her LinkedIn profile lists her as “Social Worker. Educator. Difference Maker.”

“Ever since high school, I wanted to have a career that mattered to the world,” Tuescher said. “I think that’s what drew me to the position I’m in and what I continue to enjoy about it so much.”

For the past five years, the 33-year-old has served as one of two education specialists at Dubuque Hempstead High School and one of six education specialists through the Dubuque Community School District with iJAG — Iowa Job’s for America’s Graduates.

The nonprofit program aims to bridge the gap between the worlds of education and business, connecting specifically with students who might struggle within a conventional classroom due to barriers at school or at home and be at risk of dropping out.

Through real-world and project-based instruction, as well as a more unconventional and personal approach, iJAG specialists seek to help students identify and remove those barriers and learn how to take the next step on their educational or career paths.

It was launched in 1999. By 2000, it was implemented in Dubuque schools, including Hempstead, Dubuque Senior High School, George Washington Middle School and Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

“Dubuque was one of the first iJAG programs to exist,” Tuescher said. “It’s all about finding ways to support students and help them open up the options they have available to them. It’s getting students to know and to believe that they can and to guide them into knowing how, whether that’s by staying in school or going to college. College is only one path, and it might not be the right choice for every student. So, we also guide them on how to get the skills they need for the career they want.”

An early interest and background in social work set the course for Tuescher in her role. She earned a bachelor’s degree in the field from Winona State University. From there, she went on to complete a master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Tuescher served as a social worker for more than five years with the Grant County (Wis.) Department of Social Services prior to joining iJAG.

“I had no background in teaching or education, but there was always something I liked about working with youth and families,” Tuescher said. “When I first learned about iJAG, it seemed like a position that would be perfect for me.”

And so far, it has been.

Her background in social work and fresh approach to teaching enabled her to create an iJAG class that catered specifically to the students she worked with. She also maintains office hours to check in with students.

Students participating in iJAG come to the program via recommendation of teachers and staff, but the choice to enroll in the elective credit course remains theirs. iJAG education specialists also work closely with school counselors to meet the needs of students.

“Some of the students involved in iJAG are in the lower level of their class,” Tuescher said. “Others might struggle with brain health. And some are good students who just don’t have the support they need at home. But the number one thing I hear from all of these students is that they don’t feel they have a place that they belong at school. They don’t feel comfortable going out for sports or clubs. They don’t participate in band. There isn’t really a place for them that they can feel connected and safe.”

That can extend to the greater Dubuque community as well, Tuescher said, which is why the program also integrates 15 community service hours into its curriculum.

“Students have had a chance to connect and learn from different businesses, such as ResourcesUNITE!, the Multicultural Family Center, Cottingham & Butler, Dupaco and others.” she said. “Those businesses have been instrumental in providing opportunities and real-world examples to students.”

At Hempstead, Tuescher works with approximately 50 ninth and 10th grade students each year but maintains contact with many iJAG graduates, as well.

In addition to education and career readiness, Tuescher said the program also emphasizes values, including human-interaction and empathy.

“To watch the students grow in their maturity and how they integrate iJAG into their lives is very inspiring,” she said. “I might not have come to teaching by trade, but the most valuable lessons I’ve learned, I’ve learned from the students.”

One of the biggest lessons, Tuescher said, was maintaining a sense of authenticity.

“These high school kids, they know,” she said. “Even if I’m having a bad day, I try to be real with them. I think that’s really helped me to connect with them.”

That approach has been immeasurable for students like Rylee Lynch, who credited Tuescher and iJAG with changing the course of her life.

Lynch, 18, and a Hempstead graduate, participated in iJAG each of her four years of high school but said she came to the program on the verge of dropping out. Today, she is a CNA at Bethany Home in Dubuque.

“I definitely did not want to stay in school my freshman year,” she said. “iJAG gave me the support that I needed to be able to finish. It gave me the reassurance and push to be able to do better.”

Through iJAG, Lynch said she found an ally in Tuescher.

“We’re really close, and I love that,” Lynch said. “She’s helped me in a lot of ways — with resumes, always being a reference for me and putting in a good word. When I moved out of my mom’s house, she helped me learn how to budget. She’s just a really good, caring and supportive person. She’s always there to offer guidance and a helping hand. iJAG is a really good program that I’d recommend to anyone. It teaches you about the real world, and that’s something everyone can benefit from.”

Tuescher credits iJAG as a team effort, adding that she is grateful to her colleagues at Hempstead who have helped make a positive impact on students through the program, helping them to complete their education and enter the world with a renewed sense of hope for what their futures might hold.

A mom of two when not teaching — ages 3 and 6 — Tuescher said she continues to see her future with iJAG, adding that even if she wanted to leave, she doesn’t think her students would let her.

“Students need to feel wanted so they can go succeed,” Tuescher said. “They need to know that they matter. It’s rewarding to be a part of something like that that makes a difference in students’ lives.”

Megan Gloss writes for the Telegraph Herald.

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