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Todd Torrez and Anika Anderson probably aren’t thrilled that taxes take a bite out of their paychecks. After all, Social Security is a long way off for eighth-graders.

Both students are part of Jobs For Montana Graduates. Riverside Middle School is the only middle school in Billings — and one of only 15 around Montana — to have the program.

Torrez and Anderson work at the Cougar Cage, Riverside’s school store. This year, its operation was taken over by the JMG class. Torrez works as the manager and Anderson as the assistant manager.

The checks they’re paid with are fake, but the money is real, thanks in part to a $2,500 grant from the umbrella group Jobs for America's Graduates that was secured by Val Mathison, Riverside’s award-winning JMG teacher.

“It prepares us for the real world, for budgeting and stuff,” Anderson said.

“I know it would help me in the future when I get a job,” Torrez said.

It also prepares students for the task at hand — success at school.

That’s not something that came easy for either student. Last year at Castle Rock Middle School, Anderson struggled with attendance. Torrez had behavior issues at Riverside.

Both found more than business skills in JMG, which has about 12 students in the class.

“I didn’t know about the JMG program until I came here,” Anderson said. “It’s really helped me out a lot. I want to come to school. There’s no judgment in there. Anyone’s ideas are welcome."

“It feels like a mini-family, almost.”

If that’s the case, Mathison is the matriarch. She’s taught the JMG class at Riverside for the past three years and has been honored with awards in Montana and at national conferences.

“It’s helped a lot with our kids that might be at risk to graduate high school,” said Riverside Principal Kevin Kirkman.

The school store didn’t have anyone to run it this year, so JMG stepped in.

“It fits just perfectly,” Mathison said.

“We are still figuring out what we can put in the store,” Torrez said. It opened last week, but they’re still gauging student-customer interest in products. Students keep shelves stocked, run the cash register and are responsible for keeping the store tidy and providing good customer service. They make sure food products conform to state and federal health rules.

So far, they carry things like snacks, pencils, gel pens and bracelets.

They also work on professional skills, like a GNAP introduction — greeting, names, affiliations and purpose. Torrez and Anderson spoke during a recent all-school assembly.

JMG also helps coordinate fundraising efforts. Last year, the group raised almost $1,000 for Pennies for Patients.

Students have the option of taking the class as a seventh-grader and again as an eighth-grader, a path Torrez followed.

“They’re growing and gaining more skills,” Mathison said.

For Torrez, one of the biggest of those was being “a little bit more grown up.”

“More high schools should know about (JMG) and have it,” Anderson said. “You’re like a professional.”

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.