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Equity, Opinion, Pathways, School Community

Leaving School

A Multi-faceted perspective

Reading through the blog contributions that accompany the CEA’s latest theme issue, Towards Fewer Dropouts, is a little like holding a diamond up to the light. The diverse perspectives presented here over the past few weeks have helped us to see that the challenges and opportunities that exist, as we pay closer attention to the students who choose to leave our public schools prior to graduation, are quite complex.

Reading through the blog contributions that accompany the CEA’s latest theme issue, Towards Fewer Dropouts, is a little like holding a diamond up to the light. The diverse perspectives presented here over the past few weeks have helped us to see that the challenges and opportunities that exist, as we pay closer attention to the students who choose to leave our public schools prior to graduation, are quite complex.

It’s true that high school completion rates have increased significantly over the past thirty years. That said, the number of Canadian young people who choose to leave school before receiving, at least, a high school diploma should still be a cause for concern, especially when those data are allowed to bump up against current narratives of equity and excellence for ALL.

Individually, each contributor in this blog series has offered a slightly different view on how best to meet the demands that come from imagining a public education system that is not just accessible but, as many insist, compelling! Collectively, however, their reflections point to the multi-faceted nature of both the challenge and the response.

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As is the case when looking at most social phenomena, there tends to be a great divide between stories and statistics. In their own way, many of our contributors have encouraged us to look beyond the numbers and do our best to step into the unique and diverse lives of those who, for one reason or another, feel compelled to put aside their formal education.

We’ve been challenged to look at the assumptions and dispositions that ground the language of school. How do we define success? How do we name those that graduate through the various levels of formal education and how do we name those that choose, for a whole variety of reasons to leave school early? And how our paradigms of school affect the way we think about both groups?

We have heard from those that have keyed in on the importance of the relational nature of learning, suggesting that schools should ensure that all young people, but most especially those on the verge of either coming or going, should find strong levels of mentorship, guidance and support. For some of our authors, this involves rethinking how we allocate resources to ensure that more students are more successful in their coursework—the core of the school experience. For others, it involves fostering in students the mindset, confidence and self-awareness that will ensure that success both within and beyond school is more likely.

We’ve heard the call to become more responsive to the fact that many children and young people walk into our schools already at-risk, carrying with them the burdens and stresses of the political, social, economic and emotional contexts in which they are immersed. We’ve read about the importance of making these diverse and sometimes intense contexts a starting point for how we begin to reimagine the space within our schools.

Equally important, however, a 21st century commitment to the challenge of early school leaving must involve serious thought about how the boundaries around our education systems might be drawn much wider to include the powerful learning opportunities which are already drawing the attention of many young people. Many young people are already aware of the learning that takes place in these contexts—often self-selected, motivating, and based on intense interests, if not passion. Some of our authors pointed to sanctioning these contexts—allowing participation in them to “count” towards formal education. Others argued that many of the powerful elements found in these places might be leveraged to improve the effect of what happens in the schoolhouse.

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There have been many powerful strategies, approaches and insights shared here over the past few weeks. Most of them come from the personal on-the-ground experiences of those working with those most affected by this issue. The deep investment has been both evident and appreciated. I’m left with a great deal to ponder and integrate into my own thinking, but there are three ideas that will continue to resonate.

First, in all ten entries on the topic, there was not one statistical table or chart included.  Instead, we were immediately drawn into the stories of students and the passionate people committed to working with them. This is precisely where our main focus needs to be! The stories are rich and defy aggregation!

Second, as I read through the ideas that our authors have for addressing the challenges presented by those that choose to leave school, I found myself asking the question, “How would this not be good for ALL students?” Greater connection to interests, increased application of learning in contexts outside of school, greater differentiation according to where one is in their learning path—these are all elements that should be part of everyone’s school experience.

Finally, the more time I spend in the education space, the more surreal this place we call school looks and feels. Isolated, institutional, and highly controlled, schools continue to be constituted and imagined in ways that fly in the face of what we know about the intersection of powerful teaching and dynamic learning. The approaches and alternatives described over the past few weeks, however, give us hope that substantial change could be just over the horizon.

But in order for this change to become a reality, we will need to continue to hold the stories all of our young people up to the light, appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of what we see and, most important, dare to allow these stories to lead us in new directions.  

Meet the Expert

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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