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Archive for the ‘Student Dropouts’ Category

Bridge building can provide a rather unconventional source of educational reform insights. All bridges built over water –and constructed with the expert advice of a construction engineer — need “a foundation which is rested on the bed.”  Solid foundations, therefore, are critical to successful bridge-building projects.

School, college and workplace are far too often islands separated by hard to traverse expanses of water. Building bridges for high school leavers involves far more than simply clearing a path and creating easier off-ramps. It should involve paying far more attention to the cardinal principle of bridge building science — sound foundations matter.

BridgeBuildingPhotoA recent Nova Scotia Transition Task Force report, From School to Success: Clearing the Path, released June 21, 2016, looks well-intended, but appears to have missed the most critical piece — shoring-up the foundations on both sides of the bridge.  With youth unemployment hovering above the Canadian national average, the task force focused mostly on repairing the bridges, providing more program supports, and better career counselling.  It even proposed that high school graduates take a “gap year” on their own, presumably to acquire the requisite job-ready skills and work ethic.

How well prepared students were for success in college and the workplace was not really addressed in the Task Force report. When pressed to explain what employers were looking for, the notable silence was filled by one Task Force member. Andrea Marsman of the Nova Scotia Black Educators Association. “There are issues around deadlines and attendance and work ethic,” she told CBC Nova Scotia News. “They were saying that over the past several years they’ve seen a decline of respect for those particular principles of work ethic.”

Boring into the report, the problem with the educational foundation of the K-12 level pillar comes into sharper relief.  While high school graduation rates soar above 85%, only four in 10 university students complete their degree within four years. Thirty per cent never complete their university studies at all. At the community college level, 32 per cent don’t come back after their first year of study.

Raising graduation rates has been the priority in Nova Scotia , Ontario, and elsewhere for the past decade or so.  School promotion policies and “no fail” student assessment practices have significantly raised retention levels.  In spite of this, about five per cent of Nova Scotia students drop out in grade 11, unable to collect a graduation diploma. Those who do leave before graduation, it is clear, are totally unprepared for the daily discipline/grind and rigors of the workplace.

The Nova Scotia Task Force report simply accepts the current status quo — trying to help high school dropouts to graduate. While it is true that dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed, and college dropouts are have 3 % higher unemployment rates, the report does not really confront the the quality and preparedness of students leaving the system.  Instead, the Task Force recommended making it easier to graduate and funding more school-to-workplace bridge programs.

BridgingNSedReviewThe Transition Task Force recommendations completely flew in the face of the most recent evidence on employer satisfaction with Nova Scotia student graduates.  In the Nova Scotia Education Review survey, released in October 2014, only 38% of the 2,309 community members surveyed felt that students were “well prepared” for college or university, and fewer still, some 18%, felt they were well prepared for the workforce (p. 35).  Only one of three of the community respondents found students “well prepared” to move onto the next grade, so that is hardly an earthshaking revelation (p. 31).

The answers to the critical questions of preparedness and what today’s workplace demands may not be squarely addressed in the Nova Scotia report, but they are in a pertinent American study, produced in January 2014 by Bentley University researchers.  Just as in Nova Scotia and other provinces, the business sector concerns that today’s college graduates aren’t properly prepared are not going away.  What is changing is the willingness of U.S. colleges and universities to grapple with and address the core issue – improving the core competencies, skills, and work ethic of graduates.

The PreparedU Millennial Preparedness Survey questioned 3,000 respondents across nine audiences and examined skills, traits, use of technology, workplace attitudes and expectations, along with opinions of executives about millennials and vice versa, and much more. It directly addressed the preparedness problem and found a surprising consensus around the source of the problem – a lack of focus on developing strong character, determination, resilience and work ethic. It also found students’ self-perceptions, fostered in schools, to be out of line with those of employers.  Most alarming of all, businesses surveyed found graduates unprepared or unemployable, but seemingly confident in their own abilities.

Thirty-five percent of surveyed U.S. business leaders reported recent graduates they have hired would get a “C” or lower for preparation, if graded. However, they didn’t believe the fault rested entirely with students. Many businesses claimed that “soft skills” were highly valued, but their hiring decisions demonstrated otherwise, showing a clear preference for those with “hard skills,” such as technology training or apprenticeship certificates.

Just over half of business decision-makers and 43 percent of corporate recruiters surveyed said the business community itself deserves a “C” or lower on how well they are preparing recent grads for their first jobs. They also acknowledged that many businesses are not training new hires like they used to, leaving career colleges and private companies to fill the gaps.

School-college-workplace bridges will not be built in a day, nor will they be repaired by tinkering with, or extending, existing programs. Education department reports, like the June 2016 Nova Scotia Task Force study, tend to avoid going to the root of the preparedness problem. Looking at the membership of the Transitions Task Force, it is easy to see why.  Of the seventeen appointed members, the vast majority have a stake in the current system, only two were from business or industry and only one was a teacher in the K-12 school system.

What can school authorities wrestling with school-college-workplace transitions learn from bridge building science?  Why is the preparedness problem so difficult to tackle?  How can you assess the preparedness of high school and college graduates without systematically surveying job seekers or prospective employers? 

 

 

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The Rehteah Parsons case has made us all far more aware of the contemporary spectre of cyberbullying and teen sexual assault. Coming on the heels of recent teen suicides and prescription drug tragedies, Rehteah’s death prompted a flurry of immediate — and delayed — responses from Nova Scotia’s education, child and youth services, hospital, police and judicial systems. Every Canadian province far too many Rehteah Parsons-like stories of lost teens who fell through the cracks in the system.

RehtaehMemorialAfter all of this frenzied activity, Rehtaeh’s own province  still has a a gaping hole in its child and youth service system. Simply reacting to the regular and ongoing “youth crisis” eruptions is not good enough.  Nova Scotia desperately needs the visible and active presence of an empowered Child and Youth Advocate, independent of the Government and separate from the provincial Ombudsman’s Office.

The current provincial ombudsman, Dwight Bishop, has, to his credit, raised the alarm bells in late June and again in his latest annual report. Sadly, both of those sincere and impeccably diplomatic appeals fell mostly upon deaf ears.
Provincial bureaucrats like Bishop, unlike those heavyweight auditor generals, often appeal for bigger budgets to expand their reach, but – in this case – the cry for a more robust presence is not only justified, but long overdue.

The 2007 Nova Scotia Child and Youth Strategy established a better policy framework and the situation now cries out for real action. Many teen suicides are preventable, child poverty is growing, financially-pressed families are stressed out, domestic violence exists in too many children’s lives, and abuses still happen in child welfare and educational institutions.

The N.S. Ombudsman Office, founded in response to allegations of institutional abuse in the 1960s, labours on with a very limited mandate and an annual budget of only $1.7 million, a fraction of what is invested elsewhere.  Last year, Nova Scotia spent only $400,000 investigating child and youth complaints, less than one-quarter of the amount expended in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The mandate of Nova Scotia’s ombudsman is far too narrow, limiting Bishop to investigating cases of abuse in provincial child and youth care facilities. His latest recommendation to establish a “child death review committee” was well intended, but is woefully inadequate because we cannot be satisfied with simply providing justice at the tail end of the process.

It’s time Nova Scotia joined Canada’s eight other provinces with Child and Youth Advocates in taking a more robust approach with a full mandate to investigate a wider range of individual cases, to recommend changes in child, youth and education service systems, and to take the lead in advocating changes in child and youth policy.

When Nova Scotia adopted the Child and Youth Strategy, the key initiatives were entrusted to the Community Services Department and, to a lesser extent, the Education Department. Some progress has been made in promoting juvenile justice reform, restorative justice practices and integrated service delivery, including the SchoolsPlus program aimed at supporting the 10 to 15 per cent of children and youth at highest risk.

The time is ripe for an independent agency to assess recent reforms and to attack child and youth problems at the source .It is not enough to simply focus on individual cases of abuse and death when an open, accessible complaints office and comprehensive reviews yield so much more for policy-makers. Such independent provincial reviews are also much more affordable for taxpayers.

An August 2009 review of Canadian provincial child and youth advocacy offices, conducted by Robin MacLean and R. Brian Howe at Cape Breton University, found that Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba had the most effective operations.  Those jurisdictions were reportedly “more active and successful in advising government and influencing systemic reform,”  leading to policy and legislative changes.  Nova Scotia lagged behind other provinces, particularly in its scope of operations and public advocacy role.

The Saskatchewan Child and Youth advocacy system has proven itself capable of effecting positive change. Since 2007, that office has sparked the province-wide adoption of eight Child and Youth First Principles, based upon the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), establishing child rights and provisions for “the greater protection from harm.”  That led to a prohibition of corporal punishment in public schools, youth detention centre detox programs, teen health information clinics, and bullying prevention policies.

Child poverty reduction now tops the agenda in BC and Saskatchewan where the provincial offices have issued Child Poverty Report Cards. More than one in eight Nova Scotia children live in poverty, the fourth highest percentage in Canada, after BC, Manitoba and Ontario. A provincial Child and Youth Advocate here would ensure that we look “upstream” at the root causes of child poverty, child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and later criminal activity.

The N.S. ombudsman’s proposal for a “child death committee” falls far short of what Nova Scotia children, youth, and families need in a time of financial stress and high anxiety complete with new threats like serial sexting and cyber harassment.   Taking action now may be just what saves us from a succession of Rehteah Parsons cases in the years ahead.

Who speaks up for Children and Youth who go off track at a critical point in their lives?  Which Canadian province has the best record in Child and Youth advocacy? What will it take to convince governments to address the problems of troubled children and youth at the source rather than a the tail end?

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High school graduation season has come and gone and it seems an opportune time to step back and try to assess the whole matter of rapidly rising graduation rates.  Now that high school graduation rates have topped 80 % in most Canadian provinces and some American states, it seems reasonable to ask whether rising levels of student “attainment” are actually the best way of measuring actual “achievement” levels.  American education commentator John Merrow of PBS News Hour  raised the same issue in April 2013 by posing the question this way – “Can an increase in National High School Graduation rates be trusted?”

SmilingHSGradsEducation authorities in Canada and the United States have recently been crowing a great deal about rising high school graduation rates.  On June 25, 2013, the Council of Ministers of Education in Canada (CMEC), chaired by Nova Scotia’s Ramona Jennex, claimed that the OECD report Education at a Glance 2013 showed that Canada was “one of the most well-educated countries in the world” on the basis of its high school and post-secondary education completion rates.  A recent U.S. education report, “Building a Grad Nation,” released in February 2013, claimed that American graduation rates had risen to 80%, a gain of 6% since 2001, and were on target to reach 90% by 2020.

The 2013 OECD  report delivered good news on “educational attainment” levels for many countries, including the United States. The Graduation Rates for upper secondary level (A 2.1) in 2011 among first time graduates were extraordinarily high, while the gender differences and ages at graduation varied considerably.   Canada registered an 85% graduation rate ( 82% for Men, 88% for Women) and the average age at graduation was 19 years. For the United States, the national figures reported were 77% (74% for Men, 81% for Women), but the avg. age at graduation was only 17 years.

Rising graduation rates are being reported throughout the OECD countries. Japan and Finland led the pack of top nations tied with 96% graduation rates, but the avg Finn at graduation was 22 years of age. Canada’s rate of graduation, 84%, is just above the OECD average of 83% at 20 years of age.  The United Kingdom and Australia, both with national student testing systems and so-called “league tables,” report graduation rates of 77% and 74% respectively.  Young women are graduating at higher rates than men  in virtually every country to the point where it is becoming a ‘sleeping’ public policy issue.

High school graduation rates are soaring and, in many countries, national dropout rates are declining. In Canada, the Canadian Council on Learning was one of the few agencies not simply content to report trends and inclined to look deeper.  Back in December 2005, a CCL report on School Dropout Rates documented the dramatic decline of 7% in high school dropout rates from 1990-91 to 2oo4- 05, noting that Atlantic Canadian provinces like Nova Scotia led the way.  The demands of the labour market for high school graduates was identified as the key factor, outweighing school retention initiatives.

Rising graduation rates and declining dropout rates are worth applauding, to a point. Over the 20 year period from 1990-91 to 2019-10, the number of Canadian young people ages 20 to 24 without a high school diploma dropped from 340,000 (16.6%) to 191,000 (8.5%), again most dramatically evident in Atlantic Canada. THat is a positive development because, as John Richards of the CD Howe Institute pointed out in January 2011, Canadians without a diploma have an average employment rate of under 40%, whereas graduates average about  25% higher. In short, dropping out of high school leads to a life marked by bouts of unemployment and, in many cases, by poverty.

Provincial student attainment levels, however, only tell part of the story.  Canada’s  top performing province on international tests, Alberta, has among the lowest graduation rates and surprisingly high dropout rates.  Alberta’s  Education Department has long contended that the low graduation rate can be explained by Alberta’s more carefully audited reporting system and the number of young Albertans moving in and out of the oil rich province over the course of a school year.

The Maritime provinces have extraordinarily high graduation rates and low dropout counts , but their students perform mediocre at best on PISA and other standardized student assessments.  In the case of Quebec, the country’s top performing province in Mathematics, a more rigorous curriculum, provincial examinations, and the high rural francophone dropout rate are factors. Anglo-Quebeckers have much higher completion rates, but those who leave the province to complete high school or switch to private schools are also identified as “dropouts” from the state system. One of the country’s best resourced school systems, Ontario, lagged behind in graduation rates until the late 1990s when Premier Dalton McGuinty finally adopted his “everyone will graduate” policy. 

Boring down into the reasons for the rising Canadian graduation rates will likely lead to more plausible explanations. When we do, it will likely start by examining the factors identified by John Merrow in his recent PBS investigative report.  To probe into the numbers will likely lead us to seriously examine the impact of slackening academic standards and the proliferation of “no fail” assessment policies. High school credit recovery courses have grown enormously as a way of moving students along and helping them to secure diplomas, but the phenomenon has not really been studied in Canada or the United States.

A major factor in the United States has been the closure of so-called failing high schools, known as “dropout factories.”  That is not a factor here in Canada, where faltering schools remain open and essentially resort to “social promotion” policies. In Canada, we also need to assess the numbers of students leaving in Grades 10 and 11 to enter alternative schools or to be home-schooled and whether they are counted the same way in each province. Some lighthouse small school programs to support Aboriginal students, like St. Joe’s in Edmonton, may yet yield more positive answers.

It’s time to probe into rising graduation levels and to see whether they reflect real improvements in student achievement. What have we gained — and lost – by adopting “everyone graduates” policies in our high schools?  Given the lack of national graduation standards, can the reported provincial graduation rates be validated and trusted?  What has been the impact of credit recovery courses in schools across Canada?  Are rising graduation levels accurately reflecting improvements in student learning and achievement or is the public being sold another bill of goods?

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Speaking at the Ontario People for Education Conference in November 2010, Tara Moore, the Provincial Coordinator of Nova Scotia’s SchoolsPlus, described the new initiative as a “collaborative inter-agency approach to supporting the whole child and family” where “schools become centers of service delivery enabling enhanced collaboration by bringing professionals and programs together to help children, youth and families in a welcoming place.”

The larger vision of SchoolsPlus was to become, in Moore’s words, “the hub of the community and (a place where) services are co-located.” (Moore, P4E, 2010) That proved to be a very tall order for a Nova Scotia program still in its infancy running, at that time, in four school boards with 24 different school sites.

ChildandYouthStrategylogoThe Nova Scotia SchoolsPlus model was initiated in October 2008 with a lofty but rather nebulous vision. Judging from Moore’s choice of words, it was abundantly clear that SchoolsPlus had been adopted and adapted from an earlier venture in Saskatchewan known as SchoolPLUS TM (Saskatchewan, DOE, 2001; Working Together Handbook, 2002). Furthermore, earlier that year, in May 2010, the champion of the Saskatchewan project, Dr. Michael Tymchak, an Education professor at the University of Regina, had lent his support in a May 2010 speech to the Association of Nova Scotia Educational Administrators (ANSEA).

Although the Nova Scotia model was patterned after Saskatchewan’s, it was also remarkably similar to the Ontario version termed “Integrated Service Delivery”(ISD) (Ontario, MOET, 2010).  It actually fell somewhere in-between as a peculiar, chameleon-like hybrid of the two approaches.

The Nova Scotia initiative was primarily sparked by a key recommendation of  Nova Scotia Justice Merlin Nunn’s landmark 2006 report, Spiralling Out of Control, focusing on a troubled 16-year old youth, Archie Billard, which then found its way into Our Kid’s Are Worth It, the much heralded 2007 strategy to close the gaps in front-line support services.

                Social service providers tend to focus their energies on rescuing and supporting children and youth described as “falling through the cracks.” Justice Nunn surprised many by reaching the opposite conclusion:  “From a young age,” Nunn wrote,” AB and his family had substantial involvement with government social service agencies and personnel, education supports, and health facilities. Whether that was enough is another question.”

My latest AIMS research report, Reclaiming At-Risk Children and Youth (June 2013)  demonstrates that, while SchoolsPlus (SP) is a worthwhile provincial integrated services delivery (ISD) initiative, it is in need of a ‘mid-term correction’ to ensure its ultimate success and reach its target population, the 5 to 10 per cent of children and youth at risk of going off-the rails.

Champions of SP are hard to find in the school system, outside of the Chignecto-Central and South Shore school boards, and provincial education authorities are very protective of  information about the whole venture. Much of the focus is clearly on better coordinating existing public social services rather than the expected core mission–building “communities of care,” fostering resilience from an early age, and reclaiming “at risk” children, youth and families.

Over the past three years, inter-departmental service cooperation has increased, particularly in established SchoolsPlus hub sites.  Mental health services are now being introduced, largely as a result of the herculean and inspired efforts of Dalhousie psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher.

Making a wider range of services and supports available is a laudable achievement, but limiting public access to regular school hours, and enforcing restrictive Community Use of Schools regulations, (i.e.,$2 million in liability insurance), only serves to maintain the entrenched “boundaries” that stand in the way of genuine two-way community interaction in the schools.

Engaging with new, less familiar community development partners, like Pathways to Education, would produce far better results, as evidenced by the amazing success of Pathways Spryfield. With a more flexible, adaptable approach, SchoolsPlus could well become a far more effective presence in Dartmouth North and other inner city high dropout zones.

The true vision of “wraparound” services and supports will not be realized until SchoolsPlus is re-engineered and begins to draw far more on the strengths and talents of local communities, working with parents and families, and tapping into services closest to where people live and work.

The SchoolsPlus initiative has achieved the goal of provincial coverage – with eight boards and 95 current sites.  Yet expanding the number of sites and supports is only half the battle. It’s far more important to keep your sights on the core mission — improving the quality and intensity of frontline services to struggling children and youth  — and their families.  Without a “mid-term correction,” this promising initiative may run aground much like its predecessor in Saskatchewan.

What is the real purpose of Integrated Service Delivery (ISD) models being introduced into the school system? Why do ISD  initiatives like SchoolsPlus and SchoolPLUS face such systemic resistance?  What does it take to successfully transform schools into “communities of care” for struggling children and youth?  And how do we get there?

               

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Bumping Grade 9 students up into High School from Junior High is an educational initiative fraught with potential risks. Over 20 years ago, Andy Hargreaves and Lorna Earl produced Rites of Passage (1990), an Ontario study of the Transition Years, Grades 6 to 9, flagging “the tragedy” and “anxiety” felt by adolescents “on transfer to high school.”   Since W.J. Jordan’s 2001 AERA research paper on the “risk factors” for struggling students, educational policy-makers have also been much more alert to the “treacherous waters” posed by making a “fresh start” in high school.

A recent Halifax Regional School Board staff report, entitled “High School Grade Configuration” (September 18, 2012), attempted to take the plunge into those very waters. The skimpy two-page report, written by Danielle McNeil-Hessian  recommended that all Grade 9 students in 12 different junior high schools be transferred to high school as soon as space becomes available, potentially affecting about 11,000 students entering the school system’s 15 high schools.

The proposed “grade reconfiguration” initiative caught most students and families in Atlantic Canada’s biggest school system almost completely off-guard — and sparked a swift public backlash.  Most parents heard about it through a Halifax Chronicle Herald news report and elected public school trustees were flooded with e-mails and telephone calls.  After the flurry of adverse reaction, the elected school board moved in record haste on September 26, 2012 to shelve the report, pending further research and a round of public consultations.

What prompted such a clumsy, poorly thought-out initiative?  Senior administration initially claimed that it was a move in compliance with the 2012 Nova Scotia Kids & Learning First policy agenda, then backtracked at the public meeting. The rationale provided in the staff report offered only four terse reasons: The direction of the province, declining enrolments, the ability to consolidate space, and the opportunity to “maximize the expertise of teachers.”

The policy initiative was not a new idea but one favoured by the province’s educational facilities planners. It was actually the product of a 2007 policy paper prepared by by Dr. Jim Gunn for the NS Education Department that proposed Grade 9 to 12 “grade reconfiguration” as the silver bullet allowing the province to utilize “excess space capacity” and pave the way for the closure of some 40 under-enrolled public schools across the province.

Moving Grade 9s to High School in Halifax has been stalled, for the time being, but what lessons can be learned from this tactical retreat?  “Putting students first” is the Kids & Learning First public mantra, but somehow it got lost in the rush to “reconfigure grades” and “fill holes” in high schools with “excess space capacity.”

Moving Grade 9s to High School without a broader, student-centred plan is doomed to failure. A mountain of North American educational research suggests that the “Transition Years” from Grades 6 to 9 or 10 are perhaps the “most critical juncture” in the students’ whole educational journey from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Ontario policy experts, Dr. Kate Tilleczek and Dr. Bruce Ferguson, produced a 2007 Literature Review that pointed in a completely different direction. Students in transition to high school face what they termed the potential for “both fresh starts and false starts.”  It was a “potential tipping point” when young adolescents face life-altering questions of personal identity, torn by conflicting feelings, seemingly “both excited and anxious, both doubtful and hopeful….”  Such tensions, they pointed out, are major factors cited in explaining why students “drop-out” before completing secondary school. The main stumbling block was that students find ” the shift from elementary to secondary school” difficult because, for most adolescents,  it is “a journey from a relatively less demanding institution (socially and academically) to a relatively more demanding one.”

What can be learned from best practice in ensuring smooth, successful  “student transitions” into high school?  More recent Ontario research conducted by Tilleczek, Ferguson and a larger investigative team, yielded a comprehensive 353 page report ( September 2010), proposing a “nested transition” strategy covering a “span of grades” and covering two or three years of the students’ school experience.

The key research findings were captured in these short passages : “We can enact more enduring practices which facilitate the transition…… Grade 8 to 9 transitions should be considered “as long-term, temporal, and developmental processes.”… “nested transitions” work best for students ages 12 to 14, consistent with their stage of “adolescent development … Exemplary programs  pay close attention to the “adolescent development school-fit”… “Risk factors” are  high for dropping-out and steps need to be taken to cushion students and to alleviate the underlying problems –  high school alienation, discouragement, and coping with the increasing academic pressures of high school.

Moving Grade 9 or any other grade alone to the next level, without a “Student Transitions” plan, flies in the face of the research and plain common sense.  Studies of the “Transition Years” demonstrate that ‘what’s best for adolescents’ should be the priority. North American “Middle School” research, while mostly laudatory and not definitive, should not be simply cast aside in moving to K to 8 and 9 to 12 grade configuration models.

Transitioning is not “a one-time event” but a longer-term process.  Moving all Grade 9s to High School is possible, but only if it’s properly planned and resourced to avert unneccessary student and family disruption. Schools need to minimize the “risk factors” and to build up “protective factors” such as multi-year bridging programs, providing peer and community supports, holding open dialogue discussions, offering student leadership skills development, and community-building  induction activities.

What can be learned from the recent Halifax School Board “Bumping -Up the Grade 9s” fiasco?  Why do facilities planning criteria come to hold sway over “putting students first” considerations when it comes to “Grade Configuration” in junior and senior high school? If school systems are unprepared to properly support grade reconfiguration initiatives, then why are they being undertaken in school districts across Canada and elsewhere?

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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?

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