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Carolyn Acker: Closing the Achievement Gap

Photo: Carolyn Acker

In 2001, as executive director of the Regent Park Community Health Centre, I founded the Pathways to Education program with Norman Rowen.  At the time we didn’t think of ourselves as social entrepreneurs.   We were working hard to break the cycle of poverty and implement the health centre’s vision of “community succession”– that the young people growing up in the community would be the future doctors, nurses, social workers, community development workers and administrators of the centre.
A decade later, the 56 per cent high school drop-out rate became just 11 per cent and postsecondary attendance increased from 20 per cent to 81 per cent. Pathways is now in 10 other low-income communities from Winnipeg to Halifax and over 3,500 students are getting results that mirror these.
High school dropout rates in many of Canada’s lowest-income communities are over 50 per cent.  It’s imperative that this achievement gap be closed; however, school-based initiatives and reforms alone have not been able to change these results.   Research findings confirm community and background factors have a far greater impact on achievement than school-based factors.

This is not to suggest that efforts to improve schooling are irrelevant; rather, we need to shift the lens from a singular focus on the school environment, to a broader focus on the community as a whole.  To provide a comprehensive community-based approach was a driving force behind the design of the Pathways to Education Program.

Based in the community, Pathways provides four integrated supports during secondary school:

  • Tutoring four nights per week in the community;
  • Transit tickets or lunch vouchers earned through attendance, plus a $4,000 scholarship to be used towards post secondary costs;
  • Group mentoring for grades 9 and 10; specialty/career mentoring for grades 11 and 12;
  • Student parent support workers – staff who coach students and are a bridge between the community, parents, students, high schools and the program.
  • Students, together with their parent(s), sign agreements to participate and have done so in record numbers.
Research clearly shows that a comprehensive approach is needed to address complex barriers to education.  It’s not about a single intervention, for example, tutoring or mentoring or financial payment or postsecondary bursaries and scholarships.   It’s the four supports – taken together as a whole – that make the difference.
Our goal is to support 10,000 low-income students, from communities with diverse characteristics across Canada.  This critical mass of youth will demonstrate that significant results can be achieved when they are provided with comprehensive community supports within a framework of accountability, measurable outcomes and continuous program improvement.
Results will be disseminated and advocacy efforts will encourage low-income communities across Canada to ask:  “What is our approach to drop-outs in our community?”  and, “What evidenced-based programs are producing improvements in educational outcomes for low-income youth?”   Advocacy efforts will also encourage funders and policy makers to make a priority evidenced-based and community-based programs that improve educational outcomes. The achievement gap would be reduced, making a real difference in peoples’ lives and breaking the cycle of poverty for many.   This is the vision behind Pathways and what we are working to achieve.
Our opinion is that the opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their opinion, and not necessarily those of HEQCO.

One reply on “Carolyn Acker: Closing the Achievement Gap”

I do agree with your perspective that the avenue is not only a singular path approach.

We also need to look into the fact that the increase in the statistics of post secondary education is due to the fact that a high percentage of immigrants have entered into the educational system.

These immigrant families are oriented differently and for them post secondary education is a necessity based on thier former background.

Fortunately or unfortunately when these immigrant families come into the country most of their parents work experience are not recognized. Thus the next generation are pushed for post secondary education to ensure their career development.

Although definitely this has a positive push for the next generations, it could further push the development much faster if the parents of these imigrant families are recognized for their work experiences outside of the country. This will further enhance the interest of the next generations to pursue their post secondary stuties inspired by their migrating parents smooth integration to the new country that they have adapted.

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