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SPECIAL REPORT – Closing the Achievement Gap: Best Practices from the Pathways to Education Program

Part 1 of a two-part series by Carolyn Acker

Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University once said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” And he is right.

Making learning a priority for Canada means investing in solutions to a problem that has confounded policy makers, educators, and governments since the 1960’s – the outrageous high-school drop-out rates in this country’s lowest income communities.

The drop-out rate among Canadian youth has long been a major economic and social problem. High school drop-outs earn lower wages, pay less tax, commit more crime, are less likely to be employed and have higher social service costs than graduates and those with post-secondary education.

Ignorance is expensive. Look at the long-term cost to our society when kids are left behind and you have to ask, “How can we afford to ignore this?”

Solving the Problem

The Pathways to Education Program® is a living, working example of solving this problem. The Counselling Foundation of Canada is a founding funder.

While I was the Executive Director of Toronto’s Regent Park Community Health Centre (RPCHC) I founded Pathways with Director, Norman Rowen. At the time we didn’t think of ourselves as social entrepreneurs. We were just working hard to break the cycle of poverty.

Ten years later we had reduced the community’s high school drop-out rate by 46% and increased post-secondary attendance by 60%. We replicated the program in other low-income Canadian communities and now reach over 2,500 students.

With this article, and a subsequent one in the next issue of The Bulletin, I describe best practices of the Pathways model.

Pathways to Education Program: The Regent Park Numbers

  • Drop-out rate in 2009: 10%
  • Community participation rate: 90%
  • Number of high school graduates to date: 600
  • Graduates that went onto post-secondary education: 80%
  • Pathways participants who are the first post-secondary students in their families: 90%



Shift the Lens from Schools to Communities

The year we began to conduct research for the program that would become Pathways, there were nine murders – and a palpable sense of despair – in the Regent Park community.

Our initial research uncovered an unconscionable drop-out rate of 56%, fully twice the average for the City of Toronto. For the children of single parents and of immigrants it was more than 70%.

Attempts to reduce the drop-out rate in economically disadvantaged communities have been largely unsuccessful. School-based initiatives and reforms alone have not been able to change these results because the risk factors for dropping out are not limited to the school environment.

Shifting the lens from the school environment to a broader focus on the community as a whole, inclusive of schools, is a driving force behind the design of the Pathways model.

Provide Multiple Integrated Supports

Students, together with their parent(s), sign agreements to participate in Pathways.

Based in the community, the program provides four integrated supports over four years of secondary school.

Tutoring four nights per week in the community;

  • TTC tickets or lunch vouchers earned through attendance, plus a $4,000 scholarship to be used towards post-secondary costs payable to the college or university;
  • Group mentoring for grades 9 and 10; specialty/career mentoring for grades 11 and 12; and
  • Student Parent Support Workers who are a bridge between the community, parents, students, high schools and the program.


Taken together, the four supports prove to our young people that the community will not abandon them.

Rise Above Stereotypes

As we developed Pathways, we heard a great deal from our young people about their experience of exclusion, particularly within the school system. The murders, violence, drugs and drop-outs are merely expressions of exclusion from regular society.

The exclusion of low-income children became crystal clear when first discussing Pathways with secondary schools. The person working on the fledgling Pathways program was speaking with the vice-principal of a local high school. He described the relationship we hoped to have with her school.

And while we had heard skepticism in the past, we weren’t prepared for her directness and honesty when she asked, “Why bother?”

It’s not only about one person. It was – and still is – about many people who believe that the stereotypes of Regent Park and similar communities are the only reality and who let those stereotypes deny opportunity. That is the disrespect that so many young people experience every day.

Ninety percent of the young people in Regent Park and their parents have registered and re-registered for Pathways. We’ve successfully replicated the program.  We’ve won awards. We’ve had recognition. But best of all, our youth have succeeded.



Carolyn Acker is the founder of the Pathways to Education Program.

This article is the first in a two-part series for The Bulletin, the second of which will be available online in the Fall 2010 issue of The Bulletin on


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