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SPECIAL REPORT (Part 2) – Closing the Achievement Gap: Best Practices from the Pathways to Education Program


Part 2 of a two-part series 
by Carolyn Acker
Every year, thousands of Canadian students make the life-altering decision to drop out of high school. Statistics show that in some of the country’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods, upwards of 60% of students do not graduate high school, taking a toll on our communities, economy and health and justice systems.
The Pathways to Education Program® is focused on solving this problem by lowering high school drop-out rates, increasing access to post-secondary education, and closing the “achievement gap”.

Pathways is successful in making learning a priority for the eight low-income communities in which it now operates, and the results have been nothing short of transformational.  Within this success there are experiences, results, and lessons that point the way to a future where all youth have access to the opportunities that will ultimately yield a stronger, more productive nation.

What Have We Learned?

Include Everyone:

The community told us that if we wanted to have an impact we needed to “include all the kids” rather than target or exclude specific groups. This matters because the stigma disappears when you’re all in it together and achievement rises for everyone.

Devise Interventions:

The interventions need to be made in the “space between” systems. It is the relationship the student has with the teacher, institution, and parents that help nurture productive citizens. The systems themselves need to be understood and the connections are key. It is important to have knowledge of both the kids and the institutions.

Integrate Multiple Interventions:

It’s not about a single intervention — it’s the “blend” of supports that matters. Pathways provides four integrated supports and taken together, they make the difference.

Base it in the Community:

The supports need to be in the community. Our young people, and youth in other similar neighbourhoods, identify with the community, not with their schools.

Maintain High Expectations:

Raising standards creates an expectation of success which in turn builds self-esteem. Self-esteem follows achievement and achievement follows expectations and support mediated by discipline.  Without discipline a human being cannot achieve his or her goals.

Pathways to Education Program: The Numbers
  • Drop-out rate in Regent Park in 2001: 56%
  • Drop-out rate in Regent Park 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%

What the Numbers Don’t Tell You

Yes, we’ve had groundbreaking results – and here’s what the numbers don’t tell you.

They don’t tell you about the debating event at the University of Toronto; how more than a dozen Pathways girls worked with mentors from the debating club to understand what a formal debate is and how to participate; how none of those young women had ever set foot in a university, let alone spoken aloud there. I can tell you how proud they were and how, afterwards, most told us they intended to go to school there and to do that they knew they’d have to work hard.

The numbers don’t tell you about the kid abandoned by his mother, living with an aunt who had her own problems; how he wasn’t going to school, wouldn’t talk to teachers or guidance counselors or school social workers; who spoke to his Pathways Support Worker and, over time, with much effort, started not only to go to school, but to attend our tutoring and mentoring as well.

No data can show how a 13-year-old from a refugee family entered grade nine and was told she’d have to start in an ESL program; how our staff told me she was an ‘A’ student all through elementary school, but was to be placed in a program for new immigrants because they hadn’t yet gotten her records; and how she’d worried about falling behind academically while they waited; how we worked with the school to ensure they got it right; how she was correctly placed within two days — and how she’s continued her academic achievement.

The numbers don’t tell you about the principal who values the program enough to call when one of the kids needs support that the school can’t give and Pathways can; or about the kid who says, “I love mentoring”, or how a 14-year-old girl who once had little confidence, held the attention of the then Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, riveted by the young woman’s demonstration of her own worthiness.

Yes, the numbers are amazing – but the kids behind those numbers are even more amazing.

Rising to the Future Challenge

We need to act and invest!  And here’s why

In July 2007, the Boston Consulting Group released a comprehensive report analyzing the cost/benefit of Pathways to society. The report’s conclusions are impressive:

  • The direct societal Return on Investment for each dollar invested in Pathways is $25 in current dollars.
  • The Net Present Value per student of a Pathways graduate is almost $50,000.
  • Over the lifetime of a Pathways graduate, the cumulative incremental benefit to society of a Pathways student is $400,000. That means that a cohort of 150 Pathways graduates creates a $60 million net benefit to society.

We need to ensure that our expectation for academic success, specifically secondary school graduation and post-secondary attendance, is a priority for all Canadian youth, including our lowest income youth, those who are excluded and marginalized.

The reasons for doing this are prosperity, productivity and competitiveness; higher incomes; inclusion; reduced health, justice and social spending; and because leveling the playing field is the right thing to do.

It is a priority with sound and significant fiscal and social benefits and, most importantly, it is achievable for the overwhelming majority of those who currently drop out.

How to Close the “Achievement Gap”

To succeed, we need to ensure there are demonstrably effective programs that incorporate several key features, for which there is now clear evidence:  interventions must be community-based, comprehensive, last the duration of high school, have high standards and be accountable for results.

There are many who want to believe that there is a “quick fix”, an easier and cheaper way to be successful.  There isn’t.  Reducing the drop-out rate, reducing crime, increasing life chances, improving the health of the population — these things are possible, but not tomorrow.

Pathways and fundamental change in Regent Park has taken years. It took years to create the conditions and dispositions that ask, “Why bother?” Why would we presume they can be changed overnight?

The good news is we all have a role to play in closing the achievement gap. Pathways has found that corporations, foundations, not-for-profits, public institutions and individuals all want to help.

The role of government is to facilitate the alignment of the multi-sectoral partnerships that are required to sustain the delivery of this type of model at the community level. If we want the very public benefits that effective community-based initiatives provide, results that the schools alone cannot duplicate, governments must invest in these programs as a partner with the private sector.

We all have a role to play and what we do matters. Pathways is proof of that.

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

This was the first of two articles for ContactPoint on Pathways to Education best practices. Visit the Summer Bulletin 2010 for the first in the series.

Read more about Pathways: “Successful Pathways alumni are giving back” in The Globe and Mail, Sept. 24, 2010

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