Pathways to Education, an after-school, community-based dropout prevention program for low-income youth, began in 2001 in Toronto’s underserved Regent Park community. It currently operates in 17 communities in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and B.C. The program provides a comprehensive set of four support pillars – academic, social, financial, and one-on-one mentoring – and operates in partnerships with well-established local community agencies and schools. At each program site, students receive ongoing support from a team of full-time professionals, including a Student Parent Support Worker (SPSW), who checks in with the students, advocates for them in the school, and monitors school attendance, academic progress, and program participation. Other program staff manage the mentoring and tutoring components, as well as the work of countless volunteers who provide tutoring services in core subjects four times a week.
The Pathways to Education program, however, is much more than the sum of its parts. While the four program pillars provide a “complex set of supports”1 and are aligned with external research on dropout prevention, the program’s transformational impact on the lives of marginalized youth stems from its unique approach to youth engagement and well-being.
Early school-leavers are not a homogenous group. Existing research on early school-leaving shows that dropping out is a complex and often non-linear process of academic and social disengagement, influenced by both personal and external factors – “the intersection of a variety of academic, personal, and family experiences and resources.”2 As a result, dropout prevention “services and supports must be flexible and customized to meet individual student needs.”3 A key element of that customized approach in the Pathways to Education program is the commitment to get to know all students and work closely with them on a personal level. Corrie-ann, an SPSW at a Pathways to Education site in Kitchener, Ont., sees that relationship as the cornerstone of the program:
“Finding out who the students are inside and helping them to come to a point where they are feeling safe enough with me or one of my colleagues to express and share some of their deepest problems and what they want to achieve gives us a really good inside look as to what’s motivating the students and where they are coming from. It helps us understand how they might respond in different situations and, therefore, how to best support them. That relationship is the source of our knowledge and, therefore, our ability to provide individualized support.”
Young people who participate in Pathways to Education in their communities encounter many difficult barriers. They battle emotional and social challenges as well as toxic relationships and environments. They frequently take on part-time jobs to help their families, or care for their younger siblings while their parents juggle two or more jobs. In order to best support individual student needs, front-line staff build relationships by listening, recognizing the assets and the resilience that reside within, and providing stability and consistency. Tanya, an SPSW in Toronto’s Rexdale community, makes it clear that the program’s focus needs to be, first and foremost, on student well-being:
“You can’t expect a high school student to go into school every day and focus and do his work when there are so many adverse things affecting his life… If he didn’t have any food last night, or was beaten, or didn’t have a place to sleep because his mom kicked him out, or if he has court tomorrow, he’s not going to care about going to Math class and doing a pop quiz. So, it is crucial that we support the students through these tough times… they need to be OK on many different levels before they can be successful at school.”
In other words, progress towards academic attainment begins with the student’s well-being, a sense of trust, and a consistent connection to an adult who sees the whole person. Tanya echoes the voices of many of her front-line colleagues across the program’s 17 sites when she observes:
“These students are used to a kind of chaos and instability in their lives, so that adult presence is the one constant. Also, believing in them is key… even if they mess up or don’t meet some high expectations, they must know that there is someone there who’s going to accept it, walk them through whatever the situation is, and help them re-evaluate their direction and decisions.”
The program’s SPSWs, however, do not solve problems, tell students what to do, or remove barriers for the students. Instead, they work with them and see their role as supporting and participating in the student’s natural process of becoming. SPSWs model how to navigate systems or facilitate conversations and interactions with peers, parents, teachers, or school administration. They help students reflect on their experiences, mistakes, and successes. Jahmeeks, an SPSW in Kitchener, Ont., says this process builds on the strengths within: “We want them to see that there is always a lesson to learn. You failed that test. What happened? Let’s reflect on what went wrong and how you can move forward. A lot of our one-on-one mentoring conversations are about reflection.” His colleague, Corrie-ann, adds, “it’s very much about supporting them on their journey but not interceding and telling them what I think they should do.”
When life experiences become particularly challenging for students in the program, SPSWs help navigate all the relevant systems and relationships, connect students to appropriate services, and ensure that academic responsibilities are prioritized. When students face suspensions, for example, the program offers a place to come and focus on schoolwork to ensure that learning continues. But that’s not all. Tanya explains, “We work with the school, walk the student through the situation, make sure he understands the incident and the consequences, make sure he doesn’t make the situation worse, and work with the family to help them understand what took place and the implications.” She adds that “through it all the student is still at the centre. Everything is based on his or her needs, and we make sure we connect them to all the resources and services necessary.”
One of Corrie-ann’s students benefited from this type of deployment of good will, guidance, and ongoing support. When Corrie-ann noticed that Mariam stopped going to school and wasn’t attending the Pathways program, she began to worry that she “was probably at a point where she was going to be withdrawn from the program because she had very low participation.” Corrie-ann shared her concerns at a team meeting, and it soon became clear that Mariam was not attending school and the Pathways program because she was helping at home and taking care of her younger siblings.
“So we tried to connect with her in a different way,” Corrie-ann says, “and that was by giving her credit for the work she was already doing: helping her mom, picking up her brothers and sister after school, cooking.” Where other programs might have seen an insurmountable challenge, Pathways staff noticed a strength – a young woman who had taken on the role of a caregiver to her younger siblings. They saw something to build on. “That work can count as your mentoring component,” Mariam was told, “so, if you can come to tutoring one day per week, we can build on that.”
Corrie-ann believes that this “process of connecting with Mariam where she was at opened a huge door: a student who was very quiet, and always looking down, blossomed over the subsequent year. Her personality just burst through.” By recognizing Mariam’s context and working within it, the Pathways program gave her a chance to build on it. “In the end, Mariam graduated from high school and is now in college, doing very well.”
Tapping into resilience
Much like their more privileged peers, students in the Pathways program succeed because they work hard, go to class, turn in assignments, prepare for tests. Unlike those peers, however, they also overcome complex challenges, adverse childhood experiences, and difficult relationships and environments. They earn their success with hard work, determination, and resilience, but they also benefit from the support of a small team of dedicated professionals at a Pathways to Education site.
Unless the students feel supported, safe, engaged, and valued, no amount of tutoring or financial assistance will help. While the four pillars of the Pathways to Education program provide an important evidence-based set of support mechanisms, it is the personalized wraparound support created by the relationships between front-line staff and the students they serve that makes these pillars possible. Dedicated and reliable adults who provide scaffolding, opportunities for reflection, and skill-building in navigating systems and relationships can and do ensure a lasting impact.
En Bref – Passeport pour ma réussite est un programme parascolaire et communautaire de prévention du décrochage s’adressant à des jeunes de milieux à faibles revenus, qui a débuté en 2001 dans la collectivité défavorisée de Regent Park à Toronto. Il s’est étendu depuis à 17 endroits au pays. Le programme assure du soutien sur un ensemble complet de plans – scolaire, social, financier et mentorat individuel – et fonctionne en partenariat avec des organismes communautaires locaux bien établis et des écoles. Les élèves inscrits au programme profitent du soutien continu d’une équipe de professionnels à temps plein, notamment d’un travailleur de soutien élèves/parents (TSEP) qui maintient un lien avec les élèves, défend leur cause à l’école et assure le suivi de la fréquentation et des progrès scolaires ainsi que de la participation au programme. L’impact transformationnel du programme sur la vie de jeunes marginalisés résulte de son approche inédite de l’engagement et du bien-être des jeunes : le personnel de première ligne répond aux besoins des élèves individuels et les soutient par une gestion de cas très personnalisée et par l’établissement de relations.
Photo: courtesy Pathways to Education
First published in Education Canada, May 2015
1 Carolyn Acker Norman Rowen, “Creating Hope, Opportunity, and Results for Disadvantaged Youth,” The Canadian Journal of Career Development 12, no. 1 (2013): 63–81.
2 K. Alexander, D. Entwisle, and N. Kabbani, “The Dropout Process in Life Course Perspective: Early risk factors at home and school,” Teachers College Record 103, no. 5 (2001): 760-822.
3 B Ferguson, K. Tilleczek, K. Boydell, and J. Rummens, Early School Leavers: Understanding the lived reality of student disengagement from secondary school (Toronto: Community Health Systems Resource Group, The Hospital for Sick Children, 2005).