By Kate Hammer, Globe and Mail, May 31, 2012
Hundreds of students who nearly didn’t complete high school are being fitted for graduation caps and gowns thanks to a simple solution: reaching out and talking to them.
Each school year, thousands of Canadian students quit school between September and June. They miss a few assignments, stop coming to class and don’t register for classes for the next fall. Last school year at the Toronto District School Board, there were 1,667 Grade 11 and 12 students who met this description.
Boosting graduation rates is a priority across Canada. The Canadian Council on Learning estimates that high-school dropouts cost taxpayers $1.3-billion in social assistance and criminal justice expenses each year.
Canada’s largest school board has come up with a new approach to bringing students back to the fold. Starting in mid-August last year, a team of four retired teachers and guidance counsellors worked the phones for two weeks, dialled every phone number they could find and refused to settle for answering machines or voice-mail.
They reached all but 15 students and convinced 864 to come back. Nearly 300 will graduate by the end of June, and hundreds more are back on track towards achieving their high-school diplomas.
“We were reaching out and saying basically, ‘We miss you, come back,’” said Christopher Usih, the TDSB’s superintendent of student success, who led the project. “We’re quite pleased with the result.”
Across Canada, slightly more than 70 per cent of all 19-year-olds had completed high school in 2008, according to Statistics Canada. Graduation rates have generally climbed since then, and Ontario’s sits at 82 per cent thanks in part to student re-engagement grants from the province, like the one that paid for the TDSB telephone campaign. (The TDSB sits slightly below the provincial average, with a 79-per-cent graduation rate that has climbed from 69 per cent in 2000.)
Educators often devote time in September to reaching out to students who registered but didn't show up for class. These initiatives are usually launched at the school level and often involve e-mails or robo-calls.
That’s what happens at the Winnipeg School Division, according to Doug Edmond, director of research, planning and systems management. Mr. Edmond said the smallest schools are most likely to reach out in person, but it’s ultimately up to principals.
The TDSB sought out every student district-wide, including those who hadn't registered for classes, but it's the personal touch to their approach that made all the difference, according to Bruce Ferguson, a professor at the University of Toronto and expert on why students drop out.
“It makes the kids believe they’re worthwhile, that’s why it works,” he said.
Ashley Saunders, 18, was among the first students the TDSB reached. She has a learning disability and a hearing impairment that made high school a struggle. She became frustrated with the school system when she failed her Grade 12 anthropology course, leaving her one credit shy of her diploma.
Ms. Saunders was shocked last August when she found a personal message from a retired teacher – a real human being – on her home answering machine asking her to come back to school.
“I’d been out of school for almost two months, so it made me feel taken aback,” she said. “I was like, ‘Someone cares.’”
Hats off to the TDSB and its leaders and thinkers!
It is not rocket science to learn about how fragile some students really are, nor about how little it takes to "touch them" with a simple invitation, an indication that someone cares.
It is also a scathing criticism of how detached and disinterested most people are about others, when this kind of phone campaign can have such a dramatic impact, with this group of drop-outs-turned-graduates.
Would such an approach work in all boards across the country? It's worth a try!
And, next let's make sure those kids already in the classroom are also being "touched" by caring, passionate and creative teachers who are getting to know and getting to recommend even the most subtle, and perhaps insignificant change in a student's attitude, beliefs and actions, that might make the difference between a graduate and another drop-out.
Let's also hope that those same teachers are inspiring other teachers, and not being labelled "too close to the students" or "too soft" or "too liberal"...by their colleagues.
There is a culture in the staff room of most schools that often seems to disdain the teacher who gets to know the students, as if such personal knowledge and contact are outside the professional limits of the teachers' purview.
I recall one grade twelve student asking to speak to me after class one Spring day. When we met, I listened to a true tale of tragedy, including facts about her father literally throwing her down the basement stairs in their home, and her question, "What can I do?"
We looked at some options, including sources of support already within her circle. A few tears were shed, and she departed peacefully after only fifteen minutes or so.
I, on the other hand, sat dumbfounded at the depth of her physical and emotional pain and also at my own innocence that such stories were part of the culture of the classroom in that town at that time. How could I either forget or ignore her story, a story that shaped much of my thinking and perception for the remaining decade-plus of my teaching career?
I couldn't. And didn't. And wont still, decades later.
We can all be grateful, as well as impressed that real people are having a positive influence on the lives of students even after they have "apparently" dropped out of the system. And who knows which of those returnees might someday be operating in a local Operating Room, or an Emergency Room, or a Courtroom in a small town, having graduated from both undergraduate studies and a professional program of their choice?