Canada project aims to break school dropout cycle
By Chris Melzer Nov 7, 2011, 6:31 GMT
Toronto - Today's school dropouts are the parents of tomorrow's school dropouts, in a vicious cycle that not only creates broken lives but also costs the community billions of dollars.
A project in Toronto that aims to break this circle has caught global attention, including that of a German state leader who is looking to see how German educators could make use of it.
Lisa Smart did not start out well: she is poor, black, comes from a working-class immigrant family. Even in Canada, her background was hardly a good basis for launching a professional career. But fortunately for Smart, there was the Pathways to Education programme.
The programme started 10 years ago as the private initiative of a nurse, Carolyn Acker, and has become a model that many hope to export around the world.
'Regent Park was a neighbourhood without hope,' Acker recalled.
In her work caring for pregnant women, many of them teenagers and single mums from poor families, the nurse's eyes opened to the problems of everyday life in the neighbourhod. Most of the mothers had little formal education.
'Children from poor families drop out of school three times as often and are twice as likely to become unemployed compared to the average,' the Pathways founder said.
'And they have children who, in turn grow up in poor families and go the same path.'
Acker began on a very small, local scale with her strategy to break the cycle. But her plans evolved into a campaign that has spread across most of Canada.
Indeed, the results are impressive: the school dropout rate has fallen by over 70 per cent, even as the proportion of students from the community going to college trebled. And young people like Lisa Smart now stand a chance.
'It's an education programme, but it's much more,' said David Hughes, who has succeeded Acker in the Pathways leadership.
'The core is support for youth in school. We offer three hours of tutoring four times a week in the most important subjects. That has noticeably improved grades,' he said.
Volunteers teach the lessons. For students who are interested, there are social relations classes, for example in how to behave in an interview.
Every student must make a commitment to the foundation.
'We get permission to see their records. If someone has a problem, we target him and he can't wiggle out of it.'
Hughes says the contract goes both ways.
'Those who stay with the programme get some financial support. First, a monthly transport pass, just to get to school, or food money. And later, support for university studies. Guaranteed.'
This is good investment, since research has shown that every dollar financed by Pathways to Education saves the government 24 dollars in social payments.
'I admit that it was the Pathways people who came to me, and not the other way around,' Lisa says with an embarrassed smile.
Her parents are from Jamaica. Her dad works in construction and could not really help much with her education.
'But I really wanted it,' the 22-year-old said. 'That was the most important thing about Pathways. They show us that we CAN.'
Germany's Hannelore Kraft, the Social Democratic prime minister of the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia, wants to learn from the programme, and to adapt it across the Atlantic.
'In our state, there are also many who do not study, because they say, 'I won't get an apprenticeship anyway.' If you give them self-confidence and opportunities, that is already a huge step forward,' Kraft says.
Kraft stressed that Germany has some good programmes. 'But we often do not know where exactly the problems lie, and we work in an unknown field.'
That is what makes Pathways to Education the right approach.
Wolfgang Boettcher, an education expert who travels with Kraft, is 'sceptical and yet fascinated' by the success rates that Pathways to Education boasts.
Not all of its elements can be exported, because 'the situation is different.' In Germany dropout rates are lower, but there are other problems, he says. The Canadian programme, however, shows what is wrong elsewhere.
'When problems happen at school, school is at fault. But here we see that the community, society, the neighbourhood must get involved,' Boettcher says.
The expert thinks enough volunteers could be found in North-Rhine-Westphalia.
'We have so many teachers in early retirement. Who would be better suited?'
In Canada, Lisa Smart can now help the programme. She just graduated from college with a degree in English literature and sociology. What would she like to do for a living?
'I'd like to give something back. So I want to become a teacher!' she says.
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