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TDSB uses a personal touch to bring dropouts back to school

Davia Jackson, 17, at Weston Collegiate School in Toronto Wednesday.Her family had moved during her Grade 11 year and she didn’t want to spend her Grade 12 year at a new high school. “I would have wasted my time, I would have skipped,” she said.

Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail/tim fraser The Globe and Mail

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.

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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.

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"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.'"

The TDSB team helped Ms. Saunders sign up for night school and she graduated in December. This fall she'll start the public-relations program at Humber College's Lakeshore campus.

Mr. Usih said the initiative cost about $12,000, from provincial funding earmarked for student re-engagement. With nearly 300 graduates so far, that's a little more than $40 per student.

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Most students just needed a nudge in the right direction or a reminder of the alternative programs available to them, said Kathy Harris, one of the retired educators who worked the phones.

Davia Jackson, 17, was one of them. Her family had moved during her Grade 11 year and she didn't want to spend her Grade 12 year at a new high school. "I would have wasted my time, I would have skipped," she said.

She'd inquired about registering at her old high school, Weston Collegiate, but was struggling to navigate the system when the TDSB team phoned her in early September.

"That one call made a difference," she said. "It gave me that push when I was beginning to get hopeless."

After speaking with TDSB staff, Ms. Jackson was able to secure a transfer to attend Weston. She'll graduate this June.

Mr. Usih said the board is preparing to repeat the initiative this August, but that it hopes to start this year's phone-call blitz closer to the beginning of the month. "So we can capture people earlier," he said.

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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