Tough neighbourhood. High dropout rate. A Toronto program helps young people reconnect with school.
THE QUESTION “what’s poverty?” hangs in the air. Eventually, a student in the Grade 7/8 class volunteers, “It’s when you get kicked out of your house.” Another follows with, “A place that’s not very good.” Teacher Ainsworth Morgan tries another tack. “At risk. Social housing. When you hear those words, who are they talking about?” This time he’s rewarded with the low, scattered muttering of 30 students: “Us.” In truth, the kids at Nelson Mandela Park School are experts in poverty. They live in or around Regent Park, Canada’s oldest and largest public-housing complex. At $18,000, its residents’ median annual income is, by a wide margin, the lowest in Toronto. That Morgan’s students are reluctant to see themselves as poor says plenty about their sense of dignity and pride. Still, they don’t have to embrace the label to suffer poverty’s consequences.
Being poor, it’s well established, is an educational liability. While the high-school dropout rate for Canadians fell through the 1990s, Queen’s University education professor Alan King notes that it’s been climbing in recent years. In a study tracking the effects of Ontario’s 1999 curriculum reform, he predicts up to 30 per cent of students will fail to graduate after five years. And kids from low-income homes are consistently over-represented in the final tally. The picture is starker yet for students from Regent Park, where the dropout rate in the early ’90s was double that of the Toronto average.
Some kids quit to find work, but the reasons are usually more complex: struggling families are often headed by parents who are single, have little education and/or are new immigrants with limited English—all factors associated with poor academic achievement. Individuals such as Morgan, who moved into Regent Park as a seven-year-old Jamaican immigrant in 1977 and went to the
same school where he now teaches, defy the statistics on a regular basis. Rarely, however, does a whole community buck the trend.
That may be about to change. Three years ago, staff at the local community health centre established a stay-in-school program called Pathways to Education. Led by program director Norman Rowen, Pathways targets kids entering Grade 9 and offers them a range of supports over four years: tutoring, .peer group mentoring, financial incentives that include daily transit fare and a $4,000 bursary for graduates, as well as fulltime support workers who help kids and parents negotiate the demands of secondary school. These features, along with the fact that anyone can enrol (an astonishing 97 per cent of the area’s high-schoolers actually do), make Pathways unique.
There are plenty of ways that schools nudge at-risk students toward graduation. Tutoring is most common, but professional athletes and community leaders are also regularly called upon to mentor kids. And a number of provinces have integrated “teacher advisory” time into the curriculum. But how effective are these strategies? According to King’s study, Ontario’s teacher advisory program has “very little impact on the educational plans of the majority of students.” Similarly, University of Manitoba education professor Ben Levin believes that many short-term, narrowly focused efforts are “a waste of time.” What works is “changing what goes on in the classroom. We need to make learning more engaging”— something that can be achieved, he argues, by giving students greater control over curriculum. Beyond that, he adds, teens need two basic things to succeed: a sense of personal connection with adults in the school, and some goals to motivate them.
Pathways, with its mentoring and in-school
support, has produced results. Ab-
senteeism among Regent Park students has fallen by 50 per cent. And because more kids are passing more of their courses, the proportion of those considered “academically at risk” has also been halved. Pauline McKenzie, principal of Jarvis Collegiate, which takes a third of the area’s students, says Pathways’ “direct connection into the community” means it can do things the school can’t—namely, provide the type of support many middle-class kids get at home. In the past three years, she notes, “I’ve seen a real blossoming in these kids.”
Pathways’ fans also include Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson and Prime Minister Paul Martin, who each checked out the program in person this spring. But such attention hasn’t scored Rowen any government funds. The program’s $2.5-million budget comes entirely from individual, corporate and
foundation donors—a situation he says can’t be sustained. Given the social savings (dropouts require more police, health care and welfare services), it’s hard to see why it should.
EVERY THURSDAY during lunch break, Arul Anantharajah, 15, visits the basement workout room at Central Technical School so he can jog for 20 minutes before hanging from a chin-up bar. “Kids make fun of me,” says the Grade 10 student, who immigrated to Toronto from Sri Lanka when he was 7, “saying that I’m fat and stuff.” By stuff, he means short: just five feet. “I hang so I can grow. It stretches your bones. After about a minute I start to slip.” Kids also tease Arul because he lives in Regent Park. “They call it a garbage place. I don’t care. I take it in one ear and out the other.”
Arul, who lives with his two younger sisters, homemaker mom and unemployed father, has overcome greater hurdles. Arriving at Central Tech, he was placed in the
remedial “essentials” stream, despite his B-average in Grade 8. In October, Pathways support worker Sean Isaacs was struck by Arul’s 90-plus per cent grades. Isaacs petitioned the guidance counsellor, and the school bumped Arul up to the applied stream. Thriving at that level, he moved into the academic stream in every subject but math.
Tanbir Islam’s initiation to Central Tech was as inauspicious as Arul’s. “I just crashlanded so bad,” he says. “I’d try to study at home but just wasn’t getting it on my own,” says the native of Bangladesh, 17, who lives in a subsidized apartment with his mother. “I was kind of shy to ask people for helplike I was the only one that failed a course.” Nasra Warsame, Isaacs’ predecessor, convinced Tanbir to join Pathways. “I realized that time was flying away, and I had to decide which university to go to, what I’m going to do with my life,” says Tanbir, who scored 89 per cent in Grade 11 math last fall. When he first learned about Pathways
at a Grade 8 pizza party, he recalls, “I was thinking only about the tickets and the money—that it wouldn’t be that big a part of my life.” These days, it takes up four evenings a week—two of them, until May, devoted to a University of Toronto sociology course being taught at his former elementary school. Pathways, says Tanbir, “is huge for me.”
Things might have worked out anyway for Arul and Tanbir. But pre-Pathways, they weren’t going well for more than half the high-school kids from Regent Park. And their failure to finish school brought social as well as personal costs. Using a Rand Corp. formula, Rowen calculates $10 million in reduced social spending and increased tax revenue for each graduating class from the community. For $4,200 per student a year, he says, “we’re providing all the supports, and half of that is going directly to the kids in the form of TTC tickets and bursuries.” Pretty good value for turning a community around. fill
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