To change a culture of defeatism to a school-going culture among at-risk youth borders on the miraculous. Pathways to Education, a non-profit agency, has achieved just this kind of near-miracle in Toronto's Regent Park, and is being replicated across the country.
Where is a culture of defeatism especially strong? Among some aboriginal youth. Pathways holds special promise for aboriginals. It gives one-to-one support of a very practical nature - mentoring, lunch or bus money to help with school attendance, obligatory homework support for anyone whose marks fall below a certain level, and a $1,000 incentive (toward postsecondary education) for each year in the program in high school. And it holds each student accountable.
Are Pathways-like supports possible on reserves? "It's an open question," says Pathways president David Hughes, who chairs a national panel on aboriginal education. "It's something to be explored. We don't have the answer yet."
The program needs a critical mass of students to be cost-effective, and a pool of volunteers, he says. It's a great solution for urban aboriginals, he says, and is now being tried in a largely aboriginal Winnipeg neighbourhood with a dropout rate of 78 per cent.
Many aboriginal young people feel alone. Pathways gives stability, support and purpose to youth from chaotic places. It draws on the strengths of a community - even troubled ones have strong, committed individuals. Expanding the Pathways model to aboriginal communities may be more important than any school-based education reform, wherever enough students and volunteers are present to give the program a fighting chance.