New ways to stop bright youngsters from quitting school

One Canadian student in three doesn’t get beyond grade eight. Seven out of ten don’t finish high school. Most of them could do much better. Here’s how we’re beginning to keep some of them in school—and why we must learn how to salvage the rest.

JANICE TYRWHITT February 9 1963

New ways to stop bright youngsters from quitting school

One Canadian student in three doesn’t get beyond grade eight. Seven out of ten don’t finish high school. Most of them could do much better. Here’s how we’re beginning to keep some of them in school—and why we must learn how to salvage the rest.

JANICE TYRWHITT February 9 1963

New ways to stop bright youngsters from quitting school

One Canadian student in three doesn’t get beyond grade eight. Seven out of ten don’t finish high school. Most of them could do much better. Here’s how we’re beginning to keep some of them in school—and why we must learn how to salvage the rest.


EVERYONE CONCERNED WITH EDUCATION has been saying for about five years that too many of our children leave school before they know enough to hold down the only jobs our technical age will be able to offer them. In the United States, where only six out of ten students finish high school, this is looked on as perhaps the most important problem in education today. In Canada, where seven out of every ten students don't finish high school, a lot of deeply concerned people have looked into the problem — w'hich educators call dropout — but until recently nobody had been able to do very much about slowing it down. In the words of Frank Clute, director of the guidance branch of the Ontario Department of Education: “Everybody's worried about dropouts. Everybody has done some research on them. But where do we go from here?"

So far, we've tried things like “vocational streaming," designed to keep students in high school by offering them practical training for technical jobs, and “job-upgrading" courses for the unemployed. Yet one of every three Canadian students still tails to get beyond grade eight. Now', some people have come up with a suggestion that sounds as simple as a child's conundrum. Riddle: V\ hat do you do about kids who quit school too early? Answer: Catch them before they quit. If you can't catch them in time? (íet them back right afterwards.

This two-stage solution is being translated into action, independently, at two Toronto social agencies — where the pictures with this report were taken. The first stage, of catching the children still in school but likely to drop out, is under way at the Central Neighborhood House. The second, of working with recent dropouts, is going on at St. Christopher House. How' these trial runs work out may affect the futures of thousands of youngsters across the country — indeed all our futures, since a mass of under-educated workers slows down the whole economy. Before looking into it, there are a few points worth making about dropouts in general. For one. the ratio between dropouts and unemployment is direct. A person who quit school before grade eight is only half as likely to get a job as a person who went past grade eight. He is only one

sixth as likely to hold down a permanent job as a person with grade twelve.

Yet dropout and intelligence are not necessarily related. A caseworker at Central Neighborhood House reported on a boy w ith an 10 of 132 — in the “superior" category — who dropped out of grade seven to take a thirty-five-dollar-a-wcek job. That boy wasn’t a typical dropout, but there are enough like him to be worth worrying about. Two professors who recently surveyed an Ontario city found that a quarter of all students with the highest 10s didn't reach the junior matric level. John Haddad, the director of St. Christopher House, says: “The vast majority of high school dropouts are bright enough to finish."

Here are a few of the things we're doing now about dropout:

■ We're retraining some of the people who have dropped out of school to a point where they can get some sort of job. For the past two years the federal government has co-operated with school boards in such cities as Vancouver. I.ondon and Toronto in a job upgrading program designed to give the unemployed courses in clerical and technical skills. But workers without grade eight aren't eligible.

■ We're trying to diversify the school system to provide courses for children who aren't academically gifted or inclined. Ontario has taken a first step by channeling secondary school students into commercial and vocational, as well as academic courses.

■ We’re building a few more technical and vocational schools. For the last two years the federal and provincial governments have put up money for schools like Toronto's Castle Frank High School which will open next September to teach hairdressing, dry cleaning and other service trades as well as a stripped-down academic course.

■ And. most importantly, we're learning to spot potential dropouts while there's still time to help them. With few exceptions, children who drop out when they're fifteen or sixteen were already visibly in trouble at ten or even younger. Some danger signs:

1. Failing a year in school. When a child fails, he drifts out of the natural current of learning that washes the other students

Working with potential dropouts is principally “a question of holding their attention With those who have quit, the problems are tougher

through from September to June. Because he’s bored, unhappy and still puzzled by the work, many teachers think he doesn’t learn much more the second time round. Failure takes the heart out of children. One Ontario teacher who worked with a class of grade nine repeaters chosen as potential dropouts expected them to be lazy, rude and indifferent. Instead she found them pathetic. over-sensitive children, easily discouraged and hungry for praise. Some people believe children should be forced to work as hard as necessary for them to get a passing mark. The Rev. William W. Riesberry. an Anglican priest who for some years arranged extra schooling for children in his downtown Toronto parish, told me: “The answer to the dropout problem is to keep them passing at school by any method that works. I’ve become a little cynical about retraining and upgrading. You may help a few but the program is huge and expensive. The only place to get an education is at school. If a youngster isn’t getting his grades, it isn’t enough to call him into the counsellor’s office. There should be a detention system so his homework is done before he leaves. I favor short frequent tests that mount up a good term mark, and I think there’s room for a second chance at the end of a final exam. If you could make kids write the exam again a month later, seven out of ten would bury themselves in their books.”

2. I rouble at home. Quarreling, drunkenness, any kind of instability is reflected in the child s school record. Social workers have found that children who can’t cope with school — the failures, troublemakers, truants, eventual dropouts — are usually having family problems, too. Occasionally

poor school work is a gesture of defiance against parents who are too strict or expect too much. A Toronto boy who left grade ten to get a job as messenger dropped out because his younger brother, an exceptional student, caught up to him and then passed him. A school official told me, “This kid will always be a square peg. His parents should have sent him to a different school.”

3. Financial need. This is no longer the major cause of dropout, as it was thirty years ago. At St. Christopher House, in a far from prosperous neighborhood, only six out of fifty dropouts gave it as a reason for leaving school. Nevertheless, the rate of dropout does go up as the family income goes down, and a shortage of money is still an important background factor in undereducation. In depressed areas overcrowding, sickness, jobless fathers, working mothers, transience all put an extra burden on children. The failure rate in a slum elementary school may be ten times that of a school in a solid suburb. There’s a higher proportion of children who are physically sick or mentally slow, and a much higher rate of transfer between schools.

4. The family’s attitude to education. Children are more likely to stay in school if their parents are status-seekers. In one down-town Toronto area of crowded rooming houses and a transient population, plenty of children drop out of public school but if they get as far as high school, they’re likely to stay there. Their parents, among whom arc many recent immigrant families, arc ambitious for their children and especially for their sons; in grade thirteen in this high school, boys may outnumber girls four to one. On the other hand, some families from Europe who don’t yet understand our employment situation insist that their children start working at fifteen. Some parents cling to the Victorian idea that a girl doesn’t need schooling, and let their daughters drift out of school to keep house while their mother goes out to work. Also says Bertha Reynolds, co-ordinator of the Child Guidance Clinic for the Toronto Board of Education, “A lot of girls in their teens use marriage as a way of dropping out.”

All four of these factors were in the minds of social workers at Central Neighborhood House in Toronto when they began what they called their “school completion project” in the spring of 1961. CNH, a community centre supported by the United Appeal, draws its membership of about a thousand people from local families who come to join craft and drama groups, to play euchre or basketball, to send their children to summer day camps or to ask for help with legal and domestic problems.

Helen Sutcliffe, the small, dark, enthusiastic executive director of CNH. told me. “We got interested in dropouts a couple of years ago when about six thousand teenagers dropped out of school in central Toronto. This affected so many of our members that we decided to try to find out why kids drop out and how they can be helped to stay in.”

Backed by a grant of $33,000 from the Junior League of Toronto, CNH staff members sorted out, from children on their membership list, sixty-one who seemed most likely to leave school prematurely. They chose children who were failing or complaining about school or talking about quitting, as well as some with family troubles and older brothers and sisters who were already dropouts. Since then the sample has been narrowed to thirty-one children, only six of them in high school. These children and their families aren’t aware that they have been picked for special study since the programs they conic to are open to all CNH members.

Next the CNH workers discussed the project with the principals of ten schools in their district and asked for regular reports on project children. Then they invited all their members, including the sample families, to send children to afternoon and evening homework sessions where CNH staff, university students and Junior League volunteers provide special tutoring in everything from remedial reading for grade one repeaters to algebra and French for high school students.

In these homework classes and in the ordinary CNH programs of sports and dances, caseworkers watch the project children and discuss their progress with Margaret Farina, who directs the project. At least once a month a staff member or volunteer visits each child’s family, as well as families who aren’t in the project, and then conies to Mrs. Farina to talk over each family’s difficulties. In a neighborhood where an income of four hundred dollars a month is rare affluence, there arc few families without difficulties. In one, the father is a bootlegger; in another, the mother is sometimes in a mental hospital; in a third, the parents and nine of the children live in two rooms while two other children live with relatives up north. Miss Sutcliffe told me, “Less than half the families in our project have a steadily employed father. Many of them have never had a bathroom of their own, let alone a place for children to study. We wonder how sonic of these kids manage at all.”

As I watched a roomful of small boys doing homework late one afternoon at CNH, I thought it looked like a lot more fun than school. The fiveand six-year-olds had gone home, leaving a table strewn with pictures and crayons and Dr. Seuss books, and ten children from grades two and three had settled down to work. The room seemed full of suppressed energy and excitement. David Studd, a college student coaching a thin, dark French child in gram-

mar. told me. "It’s less an academic problem than a matter of catching and holding their attention."

At another table Mrs. John McLean, a Junior League volunteer who appears on the CBC radio program Playroom, made a game out of arithmetic by holding up flashcards for three rowdy, competitive eightyear-olds. The pudgy one called eagerly, "I can't do times but 1 can do minus!" Afterwards. Mrs. McLean said. "These kids are quite different from others I've worked with. They have a shorter attention span and they're overactive and delightfully unrepressed."

Although Mrs. Farina told me that equipment such as flashcards, maps, pencils and paper and textbooks helped to draw and hold the children. I was convinced that what these children needed most — and got at C'NH — was simply someone to listen when they read or spelled out loud and to check over their work and explain things they couldn't understand.

C'NH won’t begin to assess results until the project has run for three years, and even then it may not be possible to measure its success exactly. Miss Sutcliffe says, "If the project children do improve we can't say we did it, but we hope we're helping."

Workers at other agencies told me that some teachers don't welcome back dropouts with their faint worldly air of freedom and brimstone. The movement to push the misfits out of the school system is no longer fashionable since there's nothing to push them to. but it's still an undercurrent among administrators of overcrowded schools.

What happens to the dropouts? At present. only half of them get jobs and they keep these jobs an average of less than six months. The ones who don't work may turn to crime. There doesn't seem to be any direct connection between dropout and delinquency but children who leave school have empty pockets, surplus energy and plenty of time to hang around the streets.

At St. Christopher House, John Haddad told me: "We became concerned with dropout because we saw kids drifting into crime.” Derek Holloway, a thirty-three-year-old social worker from the Fast End of London who now works with teenagers at St.

( hristopher House, took two years to win their confidence by meeting them in streets and restaurants. He says, "The kids who can sleep into early afternoon are the ones picked up for loitering and disturbing the peace. Almost all the boys I've gone to court with are school dropouts.” Their findings led them to set up a counseling program and a small fund to provide clothes and spending money, in order to help dropouts go back to school. After a year out of work, the dropouts are either completely hostile or intensely interested in retraining. The proportion who go back to any kind ot school is very small but rising.

"When these kids are at school you can reach them,” Derek Holloway says. "Once they've dropped out they’re lost until you go out and find them. We've reached them by offering a place where they can feel comfortable and someone who's interested and will listen to them, but where can we send them? It's no good doing a patch -job. We ve got to invest in the next generation bv training these kids now." ★