More than one in three 14-year-olds in Canada’s poor neighbourhoods still drop out before completing high school, and the figures are even higher among the most disadvantaged families in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Halifax. Shockingly high school dropout rates of 50% and higher persist in spite of years of efforts by the provincial Ministries of Education, local school boards, and myriad community-based social service agencies. Amid all the gloom, where might we look for inspiration?
The latest Stay-in-School Initiative is Pathways to Education, a ten year-old Toronto-based social enterprise which can claim to be making a real difference. While educational authorities focus on raising provincial “attainment levels,” Pathways has been quietly reclaiming teen lives in Canada’s hidden urban and suburban ghettos.
Since 2001, Pathways has stepped in where school boards often fear to tread. “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” says Toronto’s Carolyn Acker, the feisty former nurse and co-founder of Pathways to Education. When large groups of kids are left behind, the undereducated, disadvantaged class swells and the long-term costs to society are enormous. The Canadian Council on Learning has issued a dire warning that, by 2013, up to 70 per cent of all new and replacement jobs will require post-secondary education. We simply cannot afford to ignore this problem any longer.
This coming September, Pathways will expand to twelve different sites, in Metropolitan Toronto, Kitchener, Kingston, Montreal-Verdun, Halifax Spryfield, and North End Winnipeg. Teens entering Grade 9 in ten different cities will be given a rare opportunity to break out of the persistent cycle leading to being stigmatized as “high school drop-outs.”
The Pathways program does represent a new departure. It’s designed to be a grassroots, “bottom-up” mentoring and tutoring program bridging the gap between school and real life for teens. Instead of raising school standards, testing students and tightening discipline, or the extreme of firing the teachers, as in Central Falls, R.I., the formula is quite simple. Students entering Grade 9, at age 14, are offered a $1,000 tuition scholarship for every grade they pass. Upon graduation, they earn $4,000 in tuition credits, enabling them to continue their education.
The Pathways’ formula has, so far, achieved incredible results. Free after-school tutoring, mentoring, bus tickets to school, and the tuition scholarship have driven down dropout rates in three of Toronto’s most troubled communities, Regent Park, Lawrence Heights and Rexdale’s Jamestown.
In Regent Park, Canada’s oldest public housing district, the dropout rate has been slashed from 57 per cent to 10 per cent and post-secondary attendance has soared from 20 per cent to 80 per cent of graduates. One of the first of the 593 high school graduates, George Brown College student Sabbir Khan says, “Really, it changed my life.”
How did it get off the ground? After its initial success in Regent Park, the Toronto business community and the United Way took notice. A 2006 Boston Consulting Group report lauded its record in reducing dropout rates and attracted serious donor interest.
In partnership with the Toronto United Way, Pathways secured $11 million in funding to expand in late 2007 to two more sites, with plans for two more. The Ontario government then invested $19 million over four years to further extend the program to Ottawa, Kitchener and Scarborough. With new private and public sector financial support, it is now moving into Nova Scotia and Manitoba.
Why is Pathways spreading like wildfire? “It’s a community-based program,” Acker insists. “We don’t go into communities. They invite us and local support must come from within.”
In Halifax, the sponsoring group is Chignecto Community Connections, a long-established community development agency in Spryfield, one of Halifax’s scruffiest suburban neighborhoods. The city’s business and university community have rallied to the cause, and Nova Scotia’s power utility, Emera, has coughed up $400,000 over four years to kick-start the fundraising.
Central Spryfield is typical of most Pathway’s urban sites. It’s a priority neighbourhood because of its alarmingly high dropout rates (57%) and a “sense of urgency” expressed in 2006 by staff at Rockingstone Heights School. Since then, student performance results continue to lag, especially in Grade 8 literacy (11 per cent below par), the clearest indicator of future academic dropout tendencies. Even at its earliest stages, Pathways shows far more promise than the rather anemic Halifax school board system-wide initiatives.
Closing the achievement gap and producing employable, productive citizens is crucial to Canada’s future. The Big Questions are: Why has Pathways to Education enjoyed such remarkable success when many other efforts have failed? Does the secret lie in adapting the social enterprise model to education? Most importantly, why is it that we have come to rely on solutions originating outside the education system?