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(John Morstad/John Morstad for The Globe and Mail)
(John Morstad/John Morstad for The Globe and Mail)


The lost boys of Quebec Add to ...

Hemmed in by a six-lane thoroughfare, dowdy walk-ups and old brick warehouses, it's a site that was long emblematic of hope's triumph over adversity and prejudice.

In the mid-1940s, the northeast corner of De Lorimier Avenue and Ontario Street in Montreal's east end was home to the stadium where Jackie Robinson played his first professional game and began his historic quest to break Major League Baseball's colour barrier.

De Lorimier Downs stadium, briefly converted into a furniture warehouse after the Montreal Royals left town, was torn down in 1960. Now, the corner is occupied by École Secondaire Pierre-Dupuy - ground zero for one of Quebec's more troubling and persistent social problems.

A lot of kids turn 16 and decide they'd rather work than come to school. … These are often families with basic financial needs. Ginette Rioux, École Secondaire Pierre-Dupuy

According to the most recent provincial statistics, which are for 2008, three out of 10 high-school students in Quebec will enter their 20s without a high-school diploma.

That's not as high as it has been, but the general improvement in dropout rates over the past decade obscures another phenomenon - the situation is not getting appreciably better for the province's boys.

A shade under 40 per cent of boys in Quebec drop out of high school in their teens, a rate that is among the highest in the Western world, according to statistics compiled by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

No one is entirely sure what it all means.

Some experts hint darkly at a lost generation of boys, others brush aside such dire talk as myth and alarmism. Whatever slant is applied, it's a harrowing reality.

Among the 500 or so students at Pierre-Dupuy, the overall dropout rate is close to 80 per cent, the highest in the province.

"You have to understand that those are pretty crude numbers, we have a very mixed clientele, people with developmental delays, children with autism, kids who study trades, and the regular academic high-school stream," said Ginette Rioux, the school's principal. "We never say, 'We're not going to take this or that student.' … Some unfortunately leave us, but we're working hard at keeping them."

Thanks mostly to an ambitious and aggressive revamp of the curriculum and teaching methods over the past three years, students who regularly attend Pierre-Dupuy are actually doing quite well: Ms. Rioux said standardized test results this past June showed dramatic improvement over the previous year. The difficulty is getting kids to a desk in the first place.

In the school's Secondary Five class (in Quebec there are six years of primary education, followed by secondary years numbered one through five), experience dictates that roughly a quarter of the students who began school this month won't make it to the spring.

But the big problem occurs well before, in Secondary Two and Three. "That's where it gets tough, a lot of kids turn 16 and decide they'd rather work than come to school. … These are often families with basic financial needs," Ms. Rioux said.

The neighbourhood that surrounds the school is one of Canada's poorest, and therein lies a vicious circle - to comprehensively address the dropout phenomenon, one must address an even more intractable problem: chronic poverty.

And the path out of poverty passes through better education.

Just over half of Quebec's boys complete their high-school education in the five years it is supposed to take.

A recent survey of 5,000 high-school students revealed that from the age of 12 or 13 - at which most kids enter the secondary system - the scholastic and career aspirations of boys are already significantly lower than the girls'.

"Something's happening, and it's happening early … it's quite striking," said Michel Perron, a leading expert on "décrochage", as it's known in Quebec (the literal translation is "unhooking").

Dr. Perron, a social science professor at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi, led the attitudinal study, and said girls typically report more emotional distress and problems with self-esteem. "Maybe boys are just more happy-go-lucky and assume that success is assured, the same way it was for their dads and grandfathers," he said.

But if boys are hard-wired for optimism, the statistics hint at a much gloomier picture.

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