Since the YES (Youth Enrichment Services) program kicked off in 2006, the initiative has provided enrichment and academic activities for 1,000 youth within the Baldwin County public school system each year. As the new YES program director, Julie Cook looks forward to putting her vision in place and find ways to implement her ideas for students.
“I have a lot of thoughts. With the Professors-in-Residence program, I want to work more closely with Georgia College to share knowledge and professional development training. I want to move Baldwin High School to a project-based learning,” she said. “We want parents to be comfortable coming into our schools and with what their children spend their day doing. We’re always looking for sustainability in everything we do, and our community and parents are a big piece of that sustainability.”
Cook studied at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Georgia College, earning a liberal studies degree. She was the first in her family to graduate and earn a degree. Cook began her own business until she felt “there was something else I was supposed to do.”
“I went to work as a substitute teacher at a middle school in Washington County to clear my head. What I left with was the understanding that education was where I wanted to be,” she said. “I was asked to apply for School to Work initiative, which I changed the name to Education and Career, through the Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education. I was over seven counties and based in Sandersville Technical College. I started making connections with kids needing to be successful in life ... I looked at initiatives that were seamless to help prepare them.”
Her career lead her to work for the company that provided the curriculum that aligned with the ACT WorkKeys (Work Ready) initiative, covering 17 states. From working with grassroots organizations to the Governor’s Office, Cook helped individuals prepare for work and post-secondary education, and economic development initiatives in various cities.
“One of the most powerful examples of what I did was when I met with the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. I spent a year and a half flying back and forth there and I met with a committee and asked them how we can help their nation. They said, ‘don’t take our young people from us.’ That was a flashbulb moment in my life,” Cook said. “As a small community, just as the Navajo Nation, we don’t want our young people to leave and go somewhere else. We’re trying to assist the Baldwin County school system in preparing young people to graduate and have a choice to go to college or work, or do both.”
Her life journey eventually led her to cross paths with the former Georgia College director of Grants Proposal Development and Special Projects, Linda Watson-Kaufman. Cook began a part-time position as the Work Ready instructor for the YES program in 2008.
“I got to work directly with high school students. I became a program assistant soon after and then the education coordinator at the high school. I took on the full-time position three years ago,” she said. “As the education coordinator, I took the YES program that was failing with only about 20 students, to now having 104 students. The other YES programs already had a sense of family and now the Baldwin High School YES program has it too.”
Kaufman retired as the director of after school achievement and Cook officially filled the position Sept. 16.
“It was bittersweet for me when I was asked to think about applying for the directors job because I knew I would have big shoes to fill and I knew I would be leaving students that I think of as my own children,” Cook said. “I love each and every one of those kids at the high school.”
The local YES program, in its seventh year, has brought nearly $15 million in grant funds to the community.
“We employ close to 170 teachers and Georgia College students, as well as individuals from the community to provide academic and enrichment services,” Cook said. “The YES program’s mission is to promote on time, persist to graduation and be prepared for work or post-secondary education.”
YES is a collaborative project of Georgia College, Baldwin County Board of Education and Baldwin Parks and Recreation. Grant funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center Program of the Georgia Department of Education provides programming after the school day ends to local youth at Baldwin High, Oak Hill Middle, Eagle Ridge, Midway and Blandy Hills.
“We’re not in Creekside yet,” Cook said, “but we’re in the process of preparing a grant for submission in January for the continuation of Eagle Ridge and expansion to Creekside.”
The YES program during the regular school year kicks off in September and continues each day after school from 3 to 5 p.m. through the beginning of May. The program’s mission is to raise achievement and educational aspirations for students in grades 3 through 12 each school day, ultimately aiming for students to work together in order to build a whole community that says “yes” to making promises come true.
“Students can register throughout the year by filling out an application. There is a wait list at every site, but we don’t want that to discourage students because we do lose some students who can’t adhere to attendance and policies. We welcome all students that want to learn,” Cook said. “I think the YES program is often times one of the best kept secrets in our community. I want to let the community and civic organizations know that we’re here and what we do.”
For more information about the YES program, contact Cook at 478-445-0145, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.