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The road to retention

A community-wide initiative to keep kids in school, spearheaded by sociologist Michel Perron, is winning converts far from Quebec’s Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region.

BY DANIEL DROLET | SEP 13 2010

Quite suddenly, highway 175 – the main road to Quebec’s Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region – drops out of the surrounding Laurentian Mountains and boreal forest into a flat, broad plain. That plain, with the actual lake, Lac St-Jean, at its centre, is in some ways like an island. Travel in and out has never been easy. As a result, there’s a strong sense of belonging among the region’s 273,000 inhabitants who are overwhelmingly “pure-laine” francophones.

Perhaps it’s that sense of belonging, or regional pride, that got people in the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region to put aside their differences and pull together in a successful home-grown initiative to keep young people in school. In a few short years, the region has dramatically cut dropout rates as it developed and then implemented measures to keep its youth first in high school, then in junior college, and finally in university. Their formula for success is not only being imitated elsewhere in the province but has also caught the attention of France, which is now looking to the region for ideas on how to improve its own school retention rates.

The man behind the initiative is sociologist Michel Perron. After a career spent mostly teaching at the Cégep de Jonquière, a local junior college, Dr. Perron was recently recruited by Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, where he now holds a joint UQAC-Cégep de Jonquière chair on living conditions, health and youth, in addition to being a professor in UQAC’s humanities and social sciences department.

And he is very much the distinguished professor – knowledgeable, earnest, and accustomed to proving the points he wants to make. The walls of his UQAC office are bare, but he is able to quickly pull books and reports from his bookshelves to back up what he is saying. Neither effusive nor shy, he seems motivated by his conviction in the retention method that this region has adopted.

Dr. Perron was the driving force behind the creation 14 years ago of a regional council on prevention of school dropouts, known by its French acronym CRÉPAS. Funded in part by the Quebec government through a program for regional initiatives and supported by school boards, colleges, the university, labour unions, the local business community and parents and volunteers, CRÉPAS treats school retention as a social issue, not just an education issue.

This initiative, together with a student-retention program at UQAC, has made the region a leader in keeping students from dropping out. Statistics gathered by Dr. Perron (available at www.cartodiplome.qc.ca) show that Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean now ranks among the top three regions of Quebec for high school completion, with almost 76 percent of all students getting a diploma seven years after starting high school. That is an astounding increase from 66.2 percent in 1998. (Montreal sits in the middle of the pack, just below the provincial average of 70.5 percent.)

Perceptions have changed, too. Surveys show that back in the late 1990s, less than 38 percent of the region’s high school students thought university was a realistic possibility for them; that figure climbed to 42 percent in 2002 and to more than 53 percent in 2008. As a result, enrolment at UQAC is holding steady, even though the overall student-age population of the region is declining.

“More and more students are succeeding in high school, and more and more are succeeding in CEGEP, and we therefore are recruiting more students,” says Michel Belley, the rector of UQAC.

To find the beginnings of this student retention initiative, we need to go back almost 20 years. Its genesis, improbable though it may seem for a socioeconomic program, was the study of a debilitating disease.

Myotonic dystrophy is a rare form of muscular dystrophy characterized by progressive muscle weakness and wasting. But the disease is not all that rare in Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean, and decades ago Dr. Perron, along with his sociologist wife Suzanne Veillette, began research studies to map out the disease’s prevalence. Their goal was to correlate prevalence with factors such as poverty and education level. That work brought them
international attention and created a better understanding of the disease, whose genetic marker has since been identified.

Dr. Perron and his team at the CEGEP were approached by Quebec’s ministry of education in 1993 to see whether they could apply their expertise in mapping to the question of access to CEGEP. (Quebec students graduate from high school after Grade 11 and must complete a two-year CEGEP program to qualify for university). Dr. Perron’s team collected a lot of data on access to CEGEP, graduation rates and factors that influenced those things, such as socioeconomic status. They were able to map these factors by postal code.

In 1995, Dr. Perron participated in a conference of 600 movers and shakers in the region to discuss the future of Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean. In the past, he says, such meetings had focused on the region’s major economic drivers – aluminum, forestry and tourism; no one had ever talked about education. But he arrived armed with facts and figures on dropout rates, and he was able to put a dollar figure on what that was costing the region in lost economic opportunity: $200 million a year. He was also able to show detailed maps to local politicians, who suddenly began wondering out loud why the dropout rates were so high in their constituencies.

Dr. Perron began lobbying for something to be done. He spoke to chambers of commerce and Rotary clubs, lobbied fellow educators and did more than stir the pot. “I went through with a rototiller!” he proclaims.

Because of his credibility as a researcher, people listened. And because his research on the topic was so eloquent, people were motivated to act. “Innovation can’t happen if it’s not supported by solid research,” says Dr. Perron.

At the time Jeanne Lavoie, now retired, was an Alcan employee whose job involved developing community partnerships. She says that Alcan – now called Rio Tinto Alcan and a huge employer in the region – helped fund CRÉPAS from the start as a way to be a good corporate citizen, and it continues to spend money on the initiative. But there was also a measure of self-interest. Businesses need competent employees, she explains, and education requirements are rising as industries become more computerized.

“Michel was the sparkplug. He made the region aware of the problem,” recalls Ms. Lavoie of Dr. Perron. “And then he took up the cause and created the first committee and set things up.”

One reason the initiative has been so successful is because it’s been able to entice stakeholders outside the education sector to buy into it. These include parents, employers and local health officials who, for example, realized that better-educated people tend to have more positive health behaviours. CRÉPAS’s work is bolstered by some 60 volunteers, many of them seconded by their employers to help out.

“Our secret recipe is that, right from the start, we had a team that was able to get people working together to solve a social problem,” concludes Ms. Lavoie, who became the volunteer leader of CRÉPAS for five years. “That’s the recipe, and that’s why it worked. And that’s what was hard – making people realize that dropping out is not just an education problem, it’s a social problem.”

Because the results are measurable, local businesses are willing to take part. Mr. Tremblay cites the example of 85 local employers who were willing to sign an agreement saying they would limit the hours for working students to keep them focused on their studies. At Christmas exam time, employers might hire an extra person to help cope with Christmas shoppers rather than doubling a student’s shift.

Early on, CRÉPAS researchers discovered that one of the best predictors of a student’s ability to stay in school was his or her academic self-esteem – that is, a student’s perception of his or her own intelligence and ability to learn. So, one of the first things CRÉPAS did was work on boosting academic self-esteem, coming up with the slogan, “Each young person needs encouragement every day” and drilling it into people’s heads through ad campaigns.

Surveys show a significant increase in the number of high school students who now feel their parents are behind them, says Mr. Tremblay. In a 1997 survey, just 12.7 percent of all high school students reported feeling strongly backed in their studies by both parents; by 2008 that proportion had grown to more than 22 percent. Meanwhile, the share of students reporting little parental encouragement dropped from 20 percent to 9.4 percent over the same period.

Dr. Belley, UQAC’s rector, says that even though the number of high school students in the region shrank over the last decade, registration at UQAC has held steady at about 6,500 students. Partly that’s due to better success at attracting students from other parts of Quebec and from abroad, he explains. But it’s also because more local students are qualifying for university. “We’re benefiting from work done at the other levels,” he says.

The university, meanwhile, has invested in Opération Réussite, a program whose goal is to retain students once they’ve enrolled at university. Carole Dion, dean of undergraduate studies at UQAC, says the university did research to identify triggers that cause a student to withdraw and then developed a range of initiatives to deal with them. These include a centre that helps students with oral and written communication and a program that gives students academic credit and official recognition for volunteer work in the university community. Also, every new full-time student receives a personal profile that pinpoints individual strengths and weaknesses.

The university also focuses on improving professors’ teaching skills, since for students who drop out, the inability to connect with even one professor was identified as one of the triggers. “There’s not one single way of helping students,” notes Dr. Dion, who did her PhD thesis on student retention.

So successful have these efforts been that the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean formula helped inspire a province-wide school retention policy launched by Quebec’s education minister last year. And earlier this year, France had its secretary of state for employment, Laurent Wauquiez, meet with Dr. Perron to discuss the initiative he led.

Is it possible that CRÉPAS will one day become so successful that it’s no longer necessary? Quebec’s education ministry has set a target: by 2020, 80 percent of all Quebeckers will obtain a high school diploma before the age of 20. The organization’s spokesman Mr. Tremblay says proudly, “We’re the region in the province that’s best placed to reach that goal first.”

But even if that goal is reached, there is more to accomplish. The socioeconomic maps created by Michel Perron show a gender split in retention levels that underlines a serious problem: dropout rates may be improving, but they are still much higher for males than for females. “To get boys to university,” observes Dr. Perron, “you have to get them to CEGEP. And to get them to CEGEP, you have to get them through high school.”

Addressing the gender split, everyone agrees, will be the next part of the challenge.

CRÉPAS

Mission and role

CRÉPAS, the regional council on prevention of school dropouts, has its offices in one of the twin towers that make up the campus of Cégep de Jonquière. More than anything else, the organization is a facilitator, says Frédéric Tremblay, the group’s communications adviser. He describes four distinct roles that CRÉPAS plays:

  • Mobilization. This involves making sure all the players are talking to each other.
  • Promotion and consciousness-raising. This includes running an annual campaign to build awareness of the need to stay in school.
  • Research and knowledge transfer. This means building a solid case with research before tackling any problem.
  • Coaching and intervention. This involves indentifying specific issues – high dropout rates in a specific rural area, for example – and then working with local people to come up with a solution.
PUBLISHED BY
Daniel Drolet
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