Students in Chris Kubsch's writing class are asked to stand on their desks and read their work aloud. Most hate it at first, but with time and practice, they gain confidence.
"I think it's so important that they know they're noticed," Mr. Kubsch said after leading a desktop haiku reading session one recent morning. "These are the kids that no one paid attention to, who slipped through the cracks the first time; that's how they ended up here."
Mr. Kubsch is an English teacher at the City Adult Learning Centre, the city's largest high school for people 18 and older. His students gave up on school once before, and they still have every excuse not to do their homework. They live in a home without a computer, or even electricity; some are addicted to video games or drugs. Many of the toughest cases have recently arrived from war zones, where their families were killed by insurgents.
"Kubsch," as his students know him, learns their stories and then encourages them to share. He forms the kind of bond that experts such as Bruce Ferguson say can inoculate a student against dropping out.
"Relationships are really the core of the whole thing," said Professor Ferguson, director of the Community Health Systems Resource Group at the Hospital for Sick Children and co-author of a report on early school leavers.
He said that part of the reason Ontario's graduation rate has managed to climb - from 68 per cent in the 2003-2004 school year to 79 per cent in 2008-2009 - is because teachers have been "busting their butts to build relationships."
It worked for Anwyn Lee, a standout in Mr. Kubsch's writer's craft class who dropped out of Northern Secondary School to get treatment for an eating disorder and alcohol addiction.
"There, I just felt like a number, I didn't feel I connected with anyone, I didn't feel people could relate to me," she said. "But here, it's a completely different story."
At 21, Anwyn is just one credit away from graduating. She wants to become a social worker and her guidance counsellor says her A average will get her into any university she wants.
"It's crazy, I'm so proud of myself," she said.
Research shows that women are more likely to return to school than men, and that more than half of students who return will leave again without graduating.
It all means that the mysterious alchemy that makes for an effective teacher becomes all the more essential in a school such as CALC, and yet most of the teachers there are paid by the hour instead of salaried, and until recently weren't included in professional development days.
There are incentives for keeping students in school: High school dropouts are less employable and earn less money than graduates who don't go on to postsecondary education. The costs of dropouts to society are substantial. Each non-grad costs an average $4,000 a year in social assistance, $220 in criminal justice and about $8,000 a year in lost income and costs due to poor health, according to the Canadian Council on Learning.
Supports such as psychologists and guidance counsellors are usually funded based on enrolment, but according to the Ontario Ministry of Education, students older than 20 don't count toward that tally. And other funding shortfalls mean that adult class sizes are larger, field trips are nearly unimaginable and support is hard to come by.
"If you have a learning disability, you have a learning disability, chances are it's still there when you're 28, just like it was when you were 18," said Michael Rethazi, the principal at CALC. "What we offer is a very basic service [for adults]and we can't offer as broad a range of coursework, so it's high-school-light."
Mr. Rethazi, who keeps a sketch of a frowning smiley face taped over the clock in his office, jokes that years of service in adult education should be counted in dog years. The ongoing struggle is that fewer supports and larger class sizes make it difficult for teachers to forge the connections that experts have found are important to success. This dynamic can be frustrating for teachers.
"There are a lot of marathon runners on staff, some do yoga and there are regular pub outings," said teacher Solomon Elder.
Teachers like Mr. Kubsch and Mr. Elder, who work in CALC's Ed-Vance program for 18- to 20-year-olds, worry about their students who are turning 21 and still have credits to finish.
Every semester, he said, there's at least "one student that breaks your heart, one you thought would make it," but who stops coming to class.
To keep them coming back, the school year at CALC is divided into four quarters instead of two semesters. This allows students to accrue more credits in a shorter time.
"You have to paint the picture for them so that they can see the light at the end of the tunnel," Mr. Elder said. "In other words, keep hope alive. I know it's cheesy, but it's true."