Jason Luke has a thing for making a positive impact on young people’s lives. From his days as a high school counselor to his current role with the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (KRESA), the 46-year-old Portage resident says his “No. 1 passion is to connect people to their passions and their interests.”
Luke will have a hand in doing just that for more than 16,000 kids in Kalamazoo County this year through Education for Employment (EFE) programs that introduce local high school students to technical and other careers and through Project Lead the Way, a project-based program in local middle schools.
How did you get where you are today?
I started as an English and communications teacher at a tech center in Van Buren County, where I really found my heart in helping at-risk kids. It was small and very one-on-one with the students, and it led me to know I wanted to be a counselor. I got a counseling degree at Andrews University and then worked as a counselor at Plainwell High School for four years and Vicksburg High School for 10 years.
A counseling position opened up at EFE, and my experience in Van Buren really made me appreciate career and tech ed because, for a lot of young people, it is a great path to realize strengths they have that maybe aren’t recognized in traditional education. I took the EFE job, and it led into an administrator role for the program.
What do you do?
EFE has over 30 career programs, and I oversee these programs with the Vicksburg, Portage and Galesburg high schools. I work to make sure young people have a great, meaningful experience in EFE.
I also oversee Project Lead the Way, the project-based STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs that we have in every middle school in the county this upcoming year. The program approaches education differently — more problem-solving and project-based learning to develop inquiry-based, higher-level thinking skills. I connect with the schools, find funding and arrange program training for teachers. This has been a great partnership between industry and business and education.
What has been your biggest challenge?
If you believe in something wholeheartedly, you wish you had more of yourself and more people to stand with you. We’re dealing with a “four-year college for all” mindset and want to give equal light to options like two-year associate’s degrees, technical degrees and apprenticeships so that young people who want to be an EMT (emergency medical technician), dental hygienist or CAD (computer-aided drafting) operator feel their choice is seen as having value.
My No. 1 thing has been dropout prevention and helping young people find the good in who they are. Sometimes kids don’t do so well in the four core subject areas of school (English, math, science and social studies), and then combine that with some baggage they might have, and they have a tough road. A quarter of our kids nationally don’t graduate from high school — we are losing one out of four kids. We need to do strength building with those kids — less paper-pencil work and more relationship and connecting — to show them how they are talented and how to build on their strengths.
What kind of kid were you?
I had an interesting childhood. My mom dropped out of high school and had me at 18, and I never knew my biological father. I lived with my grandparents quite a lot growing up, while my mom, who had drug and alcohol issues, was on her own journey. The man whom I consider my dad came into my life when I was 9, but my mom had been married three other times before that. My last name changed four times. Imagine going to school and one year your last name is Elms, the next it’s Plumb. In third grade a kid sitting next to me said, “What’s your last name again? Last year you were Jason Plumb, now you are Jason Luke. What’s up with that?” It took a toll on my identity for sure.
As a teen I had some struggles, went through a mild rebellion period and was expelled from school. I had to overcome my demons and deal with who I was. You wonder why your course in life is what it is, but I know it made me better in the long run. It gave me real empathy for kids who struggle and enabled me to look beyond where a teenager is in the moment to see that they have great things in them.
What word would you use to describe yourself?
Action. I like to find things that are meaningful and make them happen for people and find resources for others to help them.
What do you do for fun?
I love hanging with our kids, who are 15, 13, 10 and 8, playing board games or out in the yard and any crazy game we can come up with to just enjoy being together. I don’t want to have any regrets as a dad. I want to give them everything I have.