It began in Toronto's gritty Regent Park, helping to reduce dropout rates and send more disadvantaged youth to college or university.
Since that opening in 2001, Pathways to Education has spread to 10 other sites in four provinces, drawn millions in public and private dollars, and become something of a pedagogical pop star - an after-school program carrying high hopes in Canada's war on poverty.
But Pathways' decision to go west, setting up shop in hardscrabble north-end Winnipeg, is its biggest gamble yet, a potentially make-or-break determinant in whether the much-touted model can take root in tough soil. It could also have a telling impact on funding, which has been robust to date: On Friday, Rio Tinto Alcan announced a $13-million gift to expand the program in Quebec, and early next month the federal government is expected to announce a $20-million donation to the charity.
Pathways leadership is well aware that its program of educational support can't be one-size-fits-all, that cultural differences are crucial. In Winnipeg, it is dealing with a large aboriginal population with a deep-seated distrust of the school system and a high incidence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. In fact, its board of directors weighed the potential damage that a Winnipeg failure would cause the Pathways brand before giving the project the go-ahead.
"Our move to Winnipeg represents our most ambitious project so far," said Pathways CEO David Hughes. "If we can achieve the same kind of success there that we've seen in Regent Park… . I truly believe we can succeed anywhere."
Not everyone is impressed with Pathways. Alex Usher, president of the Toronto-based consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, says it's a fad. "It's a very weird Canadian tendency that we have that we can only have one good idea at a time and this decade that good idea is Pathways," he said. "… I think you can say that Regent Park worked, but the problem with all of these kinds of projects is whether or not you can replicate them."
Independent academics are following several Pathways sites, including Winnipeg, which is being studied with funding from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
The Pathways model was developed by Carolyn Acker, an energetic Toronto nurse with a business degree. She is fond of reciting a lesson passed down from her grandmother to her father, who endured racial epithets when he arrived in Canada as an Italian immigrant in 1911. "My father's mother said to him, 'Nobody is any better than you, and you are no better than anybody else.'"
With that in mind, Pathways begins by recruiting every Grade 9 student it can, trying to reach an entire age cohort in the community, so that changes are lasting. The local Pathways headquarters becomes an after-school hangout where students can find their friends, an Internet-equipped computer or a tutor. Personal support workers keep tabs on the kids, checking in regularly with their teachers and parents, and, as long as they're going to school and accumulating credits, they're rewarded with up to $4,000 in postsecondary scholarships and about $30 a month for school supplies and basic necessities. The annual cost per pupil varies across different Pathways sites, averaging about $4,800.
Pathways says the investment is well worth it. High-school dropouts cost Canadian taxpayers $1.3-billion in social assistance and criminal justice expenses each year, according to the Canadian Council on Learning. By the charity's own calculations, the benefits of its program yield a return of $24 for every dollar spent.
In Winnipeg, Pathways opened in September among the boarded-up storefronts along Selkirk Avenue. It has partnered with one of the oldest and most well-connected groups in town, the Community Education Development Association , a non-profit run by a team of NDP-friendly community activists.
The team knows the challenges. At Pathways sites across Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, a large number of immigrant and second-generation students from diverse backgrounds have enrolled, often with the backing of family who view education as the key to success. This link is hard for many aboriginal families to endorse: Some are only a generation removed from residential schools.
"Families here have a lot more reasons to feel unwelcome in the school system," said Darlene Klyne, a native who is director of the Pathways program in Winnipeg. "We're working closely with the community big-time to try and change that relationship."
In light of the unique challenges, the Pathways leadership has made some major adjustments. The student to support worker ratio has been halved, from 50 to 1 to 25 to 1, and for the first time Pathways is providing a hot meal every evening to students, volunteers and staff.
Recruitment for Pathways began last summer. At one of the information sessions in June, Rebecca Blaikie, a co-director at CEDA, noticed that some of the kids struggled to fill out forms. "That scared the hell out of me," Ms. Blaikie said. "I didn't know that basic literacy was going to be as big an issue as it was."
Through academic research and census data, Pathways workers learned some pertinent numbers: a population that is 50 to 60 per cent aboriginal, 15 to 20 per cent visible minority, and an unemployment rate three times the city average.
But other things were harder to gauge, including the incidence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. After a review of the available literature, workers estimated that anywhere from 15 to 25 per cent of north-end students were affected by FASD, a condition associated with behavioural problems and learning disabilities. "In our community it's FASD, in other communities it's ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]" Ms. Klyne said.
By September, 100 Grade 9 students had signed up to become the first cohort of Pathways Winnipeg. One of them was 14-year-old Brandon Bird, who has been diagnosed with an autism-like disorder, Asperger's syndrome. He is in what the Winnipeg School District calls an "adapted program" - meaning that, in the name of avoiding social stigma, Brandon has been promoted beyond his abilities. He sits in Grade 9 classes but is assigned Grade 5- and 6-level homework. This semester, his Pathways support worker, Cassandra Buchan, is arranging a one-on-one tutor for him.
One reason north-end students fall behind is the instability in their lives. Bev Wahl, a principal at one of the Pathways feeder schools, said each year as much as a third of her student population is new because so many have moved or dropped out. Nineteen students from her school are attending Pathways, and she's watching them closely.
"I'm not looking for a miracle," she said, "although a miracle would be good."
The neighbourhood offers other challenges as well. Originally, the plan was to keep the offices open until 8 p.m. But on a cool night in October, a gunman tore through the north end, killing two men and badly wounding a teenaged girl. The police believe he chose his targets at random, and the crime scenes form a tidy triangle around Pathways headquarters. The gunman remains at large, and a 6:30 p.m. curfew in effect.
In the short term, progress is measured in two types of attendance. The first is Pathways attendance: In every group, a handful of students stop coming because they've moved or lost interest; they're not at school, their phone's been disconnected. The staff call them "ghost students." In Winnipeg there are 16 ghosts - a lower number than projected.
The second factor is school attendance, and staff were in for a surprise when the report cards came back this fall: Some students were cutting. The Pathways staff are constantly making adjustments, trouble-shooting with the kids to find out what's standing in their way.
But there have been successes as well. Bradley Johnston, the son of two high-school dropouts who work around the clock to pay the rent, kept a promise to attend and pass all his courses so he could collect his $30 a month - with the goal of buying a pair of black high-tops. Ms. Buchan says that throughout the fall Bradley was a regular at Pathways and, shortly after Christmas, bought his high-tops, with enough left over for a pair of jeans. Recently, he volunteered to join a student advisory committee that will assist staff.
"I have to say, he's kind of becoming one of my favourites," Ms. Buchan said. "He's really taken to the program."