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Charles Dalistan, 20, is going into his second year at Humber College after receiving help from a guidance counsellor to move high schools in order to finish missing credits.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Three retired guidance counsellors from an Ontario school board will be reaching out to hundreds of wayward high-school students this month, making phone calls as part of an inventive strategy to persuade dropouts to return to class.

Strengthening graduation rates is a priority across the country, and, as Canadian students head back to school this fall, educators are also focused on the thousands who have turned their backs on the classroom.

They may drop out because of personal issues or missed assignments. But the evidence is clear: More education helps students lead healthier and more productive lives. One study, by a former federally funded non-profit organization, estimated that high-school dropouts cost Canada's social and criminal justice systems $1.3-billion each year.

"There is a real moral imperative here," said Nick D'Avella, superintendent of education – student success, at the Toronto Catholic District School Board. "Kids need to have their high-school diploma in order to get into a whole variety of postsecondary programs."

His school board's approach to getting students to complete their high-school diploma involves a team of three retired guidance counsellors who provide a personal touch. They each receive a list of students who did not register for school but are close to meeting their graduation requirements. The counsellors are determined to bring these students back to school – they call in the morning and later in the evening, refusing to settle for voice-mail.

Zavina Kheir, one of the three retired guidance counsellors who will be setting aside time each day to go through their lists, has been frustrated at times in the past, especially when phone numbers and addresses have changed.

But when she does reach a student, Ms. Kheir gives them options to return, which could involve a night-school class or a co-op program.

"It's a challenge, but when you get them to do something you want them to do, the reward is unbelievable," she said. "I feel good saving students."

Since the initiative began at the school board six years ago, the counsellors have been able to bring 1,178, of the roughly 1,700 students contacted, back to school. Half of those students received their high-school diplomas.

Graduation rates across the country have generally been climbing. In Ontario, 85 per cent of students graduate within five years, in part because of specific grants from the province such as the one that paid for the Toronto Catholic board's initiative.

Elsewhere, school principals often carve out some time at the beginning of the year to reach out to students who have not shown up for classes. This may involve an e-mail or a phone message left at home.

Wade Smith, principal at Citadel High School in Halifax, said students are not necessarily ready to return. Still, he informs them that the doors are open should they choose to come back.

"We're just trying to give kids a chance," he said.

Some school boards, like the one in Surrey, B.C., have separate buildings so that students who have not been successful in a regular high-school can return and not feel like an outsider.

Jim McConnell, principal at the City Central Learning Centre, said his school is set up so that students work in a self-paced environment. There are no bells ringing to direct people from one classroom to the next. Struggling students are referred to the learning centre by their mainstream school.

"The goal is to graduate," Mr. McConnell said. "Every one of my kids, regardless of how long it takes, our goal is graduation."

The Toronto Catholic school board decided to employ guidance counsellors so that in a busy school system, specific resources could be dedicated to bringing students back.

Charles Dalistan, one of those students who received a call, was seven credits shy of graduating with his friends, and planned on working part-time. Mr. Dalistan did not want to return to his school because he was embarrassed and did not enjoy the environment. He did not know what options lay ahead of him.

He was surprised to receive a call from a guidance counsellor, who spoke to him about attending an alternative school, designed for students who had trouble learning in a traditional school setting.

Mr. Dalistan, now 20, graduated and is entering his second year at college.

"It was a nice touch," he said. "They were really making it seem like they really did care. They took the time to really connect with me on the phone."

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