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Toronto program lets dropouts test-drive the classroom

Julian Goodall, 20, dropped out of high school when he was 16 and recently began attending classes again at City Adult Learning Centre in Toronto.

Anne-Marie Jackson/Anne-Marie Jackson/ The Globe an

When Ontario's definition of education changed more than a decade ago, adults were kicked off the list of worthy causes by the provincial government of the day. Adults over 20 get only one-third the Ministry of Education funding of their younger classmates, and as a result Ontario's adult programs largely exist because of the educational charity of school boards. The Toronto District School Board gives generously to the adult cause with five schools, the largest of which is the City Adult Learning Centre.

Inside CALC, a daily battle is waged to persuade students - immigrants, drop-outs, the elderly and the career-confused - to stay in the classroom and to curb the hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost potential that the city and the country suffer each year.

Part 1 of a three-part series in which The Globe and Mail goes inside CALC to tell stories of personal courage, unfailing teachers and the hope that education brings.

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The natural habitat of the Canadian teenager, the urban shopping mall, provides fertile ground for spotting high-school dropouts.

Solomon Elder knows this well. As the co-op co-ordinator for the Toronto District School Board's City Adult Learning Centre, a high school for students 18 and older, he has spent many a day trolling stores and food courts looking for potential students who've grown tired of life on minimum wage.

Mr. Elder's program represents a rethinking of the traditional co-op. Instead of students test driving a job, in this co-op, dropouts test drive the classroom.

It's a cost-effective way to lure back people who have already slipped through the cracks once.

In the GTA alone, thousands of students drop out of high school each year, and they form one of the most expensive segments of the population. According to a report by the Canadian Council on Learning, high-school dropouts cost Canadian taxpayers $1.3-billion in social assistance and criminal justice expenses each year.

While the ministry will tell you it's all in favour of adult education, they do not in any way support us supporting these students. Trustee Cathy Dandy, whose son recently graduated from CALC

The way Mr. Elder puts it, finding dropouts is easy, reaching them is the challenge.

"Often, these are kids who don't have a lot of support," he said. "Some are transient, some are couch surfers, some have slept in stairwells. For whatever reason, they've lived their lives in the margins."

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Every semester there's at least one student in Mr. Elder's class who makes a breakthrough, who realizes he or she can graduate. And every semester, there's a least one who breaks his heart.

Julian Goodall had all the makings of a heartbreaker. A ward of the Crown by the age of 12, Julian had spent much of his life in various boys homes, where he and his fellow wards were bused to attend school in a portable and told to stay away from the main building and the regular kids.

"It's like they didn't want us to contaminate them or something," he said.

He resented the power his teachers exerted and tried to embarrass them by loudly questioning the lessons they aimed to teach. It was a defence mechanism triggered by a setting where he had lost control, but one that kept him from learning. By the age of 16, Julian was a dropout with criminal tendencies living off social assistance.

Four years later, at a narrow café across the street from CALC, Julian slipped a sheet of paper across a pockmarked plastic laminate table.

He flipped it over to reveal his history teacher's notes on a presentation he'd given about Sir John A. Macdonald.

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"Julian Goodall, 45/45...You're a natural at presentations and you should be proud of your efforts," it reads.

"It's just small and so little, but it's cool," he said. "Before it was 'Julian's disruptive and he uses obscenities,' but now it's the opposite."

However, the cumulative number of people who have given up on high school continues to grow, and Premier Dalton McGuinty's goal of an 85-per-cent graduation rate by 2011 looks more and more like a long shot. Early this year, the province announced that Ontario's high-school graduation rate had climbed to 79 per cent in 2008-09, and gave expanded co-op programs some of the credit. But graduation rates in Ontario only include students who complete their diploma within five years of enrolling in high school.

Julian and other like him don't count toward Mr. McGuinty's goal. A few weeks from now, when Julian turns 21, he will join the ranks of CALC's approximately 2,000 adult students who receive about one-third as much ministry funding as their younger schoolmates. The average per student rate of funding for full-time non-adult students (up to and including those age 20) is $10,730, compared with $3,133 for adult day-school students. (And it's worth noting that funding for adults is based on attendance, while for younger students it's based on enrolment.) The result is that Ontario's adult programs amount to an act of educational charity by cash-strapped school boards. And no board gives more generously to the adult cause than the TDSB, which has five schools like CALC that bring together programs for drop-outs, adults, immigrants and people looking to change careers.

"While the ministry will tell you it's all in favour of adult education, they do not in any way support us supporting these students," said trustee Cathy Dandy, whose son recently graduated from CALC. "And our programs could radically expand - I think there's an eager and waiting clientele out there."

Ontario's efforts at improving graduation rates have focused on student retention, but the data suggest there's room for improvement in terms of dropout recruitment. In 2004-05, fewer than three in 10 dropouts aged 20 to 24 returned to school, according to Statistics Canada.

In the 2007-2008 school year, the TDSB had about 11,000 adults enrolled in continuing education (outside regular day schools), but those numbers are constantly in flux as students come and go from the program.

Co-op becomes the lifeline that the system tosses out to the students who've gone adrift.

The turning point for Julian came last fall, when he did a co-op placement at Goodlife Fitness. He cleaned machines, did laundry, arranged weights and answered phones.

"When I first saw Julian in his workplace, he had this real moment of pride in showing me what he took care of," said Mr. Elder. "In that moment, he was the teacher and I think that was a real defining one for him."

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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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