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Students at-risk show resounding success with community-based program

Pathways to Education addresses financial, academic and social needs for students in poor neighbourhoods and is now going national.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | DEC 06 2010

Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood has the distinction of being Canada’s oldest and largest public housing project. Located in the city’s downtown core and now under redevelopment, the area is known for its high rates of poverty, drug use and violent crime.

But Yang Shen, whose family moved to the neighbourhood more than a decade ago as newly arrived immigrants from China, remembers it as a friendly, tight-knit community. The half-hour walk to school she remembers less fondly. So when she heard about a new school-support program that offered free transit tickets to high-school students, she enrolled enthusiastically. “That’s what initially drew me in,” says Ms. Shen, now 22. “But it wasn’t the only thing that kept me going.”

The Pathways to Education program also provided after-school tutoring and mentoring, as well as meetings with role models like then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Ms. Shen recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a bachelor of science degree and is now readying her application to law schools. Without Pathways, she says, she’d be “nowhere near” where she is today.  “As kids we get lost in life and we think this is it, but it’s not,” she says. “That’s what Pathways made me realize: if you have the potential, you should go for it.”

Both Ms. Shen and the Pathways to Education program itself have come a long way since 2001, when the initiative began in Regent Park. In the year before Pathways was launched, there were nine murders in Regent Park “and a palpable sense of despair,” recalls Carolyn Acker, program founder. The drop-out rate among the area’s high-school kids was 56 percent, far above the national average.

Ms. Acker and her colleagues at the Regent Park Community Health Centre set out to design a program that would keep kids in school and, ultimately, break the cycle of poverty. Against seemingly long odds, Pathways became a resounding success. The high-school dropout rate in Regent Park has dropped to near 10 percent, and absenteeism has declined as well. Today, 850 Regent Park pupils are enrolled in the Pathways program, or more than 90 percent of all eligible students.

Of roughly 600 young people who’ve completed the program and graduated from high school, an astonishing 80 percent have enrolled in a postsecondary program, most of them the first in their families to do so. The attrition rate for Pathways graduates enrolled in university is 1.8 percent, far below the national average of 16 percent.

The community-based program is now on its way to becoming a national program. In 2007, it expanded to five new sites, two in Toronto and one each in Kitchener, Ottawa and Montreal. The results in these communities look equally promising. Within one year of enrolling, the share of Grade 9 students with high rates of absenteeism declined in the four communities where this data was collected, as did the percentage of students considered to be academically “at risk.”

Today Pathways has 3,300 students enrolled at 11 sites including those in Kingston, Hamilton, Halifax and most recently, Winnipeg. The Winnipeg site, launched officially in October, is in the city’s north end, an area with a high aboriginal population and a staggering dropout rate of 78 percent.

The agency has an ambitious expansion plan. It is in talks with community groups to deliver the program to 20 communities across Canada by 2015, says David Hughes, Pathways to Education Canada president and chief executive officer. Most of the proposed sites will be in major urban centres with a high concentration of low-income families and high dropout rates because that’s where the Pathways’ “formula” seems to work best, Mr. Hughes explains. Along the way, the agency will share what it learns with policy-makers and other organizations. “We think we have the potential to help a lot more students and communities through sharing our knowledge,” he says.

Students enrol in the program in Grade 9 and receive a mix of academic, social and financial support throughout their high school years. They receive academic tutoring up to four nights a week, peer mentoring, and, in later years, career counseling to start them thinking about what they would like to study after high school. Participants also receive two types of financial aid: short-term incentives such as bus tickets or meal vouchers and a bursary of up to a $4,000 ($1,000 for every year of the program they complete) to go towards the cost of an accredited postsecondary program.

Fiona Deller, research director at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, says she knows of no other program in Canada that offers these early intervention initiatives that are widely used in the United States. It’s successful because it provides a combination of supports, she says. “It recognizes that challenges and barriers for underrepresented youth are multiple and complex. There isn’t just one barrier or one challenge that you can address with one intervention.”

The agency has a budget of $15 million, or about $4,800 per student, funded from a mix of federal and provincial government sources and private donations. The results are well worth the investment, says Mr. Hughes. He recently met with a group of Pathways alumni and was struck by their poise and accomplishments. “They were like a diamond in the rough when they first entered the Pathways program,” he says. “Now they are ready to go out and take on the world.”

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