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How to get low-income students hooked on university

Third year Integrated Sciences student, Alexander Young, left, Rodrigo Narro Perez, middle, and 2nd year IS student Rebecca DiPucchio, right, help students figure out where their historical earth event event falls into place on the timeline of earth history. Some Hamilton grade seven students receive instruction from McMaster Integrated Science students on the evolution of the earth on May 17, 2012. The class is part of a three day program designed to demystify university.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Given the ear-piercing chatter and jittery energy emanating from this group of 58 kids, you would think they were waiting to see Lady Gaga. But they are gathered at the base of a nondescript residence building on the far edge of Hamilton's McMaster University, where they will be stuck for three days on a May school trip.

Instead of bemoaning a school outing to, well, more school, these 12- and 13-year-olds are acting as though they are on holiday.

They are keen to traipse back and forth across the campus for classes, to sleep in dorms and sample cafeteria food. Students from McMaster's leadership-training program, Altitude, lead team-building exercises and games.

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To up the wow factor (and to let the middle-schoolers blow off steam), the university also gives the kids access to the indoor rock-climbing wall and Olympic-sized pool, and they get to watch a Hamilton Nationals lacrosse game and meet the players.

"We've been counting down the days," says Meghan MacDonald, 13, crammed on a couch with three classmates. "We're going to learn, but it's going to be fun."

Based on the buzz from last year's Grade 7s, the outing, which includes a handful of science and engineering classes tailored to the age group, is one of the hottest school trips at Hamilton's Cathy Wever Elementary School. You can almost hear the collective sighs of relief from the adults in charge, because this trip has an openly discussed motive: Getting kids from one of the city's lowest-income, high-risk neighbourhoods hooked on university.

"We are very straightforward with the students about the trip," says Laura Laverty, the public-health nurse at Cathy Wever. "We want them to know postsecondary education is accessible and that they can graduate from university. We don't focus on them graduating from high school. That's a given."

Shawn Mattan's aha moments will include an engineering session in which students build airplanes out of everyday items, golf, rock-climbing – and the food. The 13-year-old, who says his career dream is a toss-up between a chef or National Basketball Association player, was clear-eyed about the rosy portrait he saw. "I know that's the easy part of it. I think there will be harder stuff because university is hard. Kinda."

Alexis Dunk, 12, found extracting DNA from a strawberry, tossing her friends up on a parachute, and multiple helpings of dinner her favourite moments. She is sold on the university life: "All of us here, we'd all like a chance to go. If not to McMaster, somewhere like it. It was an amazing experience."

Watching these kids romp across the lush green fields and swim in the country-club-style pool, it's easy for an observer to forget the challenges they and their families face in the faded steeltown, one especially hit hard during the recent recession. Attending – and paying for – university is clearly not a given.

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Cathy Wever lies in one of the city's three poorest municipal wards. The high school non-completion rates in one neighbourhood, Landsdale, are twice as high as the city's median, according to a recent United Way report. A city study found that in 2011, child poverty continued to exceed 50 per cent in several neighbourhoods, almost double the overall rate of 26 per cent. While almost 40 per cent of immigrants to the city have university degrees, "these immigrants also have double the unemployment rates of non-immigrants and a poverty rate over 50 per cent – more than in any other Ontario city," according to the Vital Signs report.

School principal Rita Knapp says the trip is about "creating a culture of confidence" and "giving them the opportunity to go beyond their immediate neighbourhood."

Organizers emphasize that the city bus ride from Cathy Wever to McMaster is a mere 17 minutes. (The students' luggage was driven to the campus separately so they could stay and get the full campus experience.) They are reminded that a bus pass comes with university admission, and there are frequent mentions of scholarships and bursaries. Thanks to the support of the university and outside sponsors, the trip's cost to the students is just $20 each, with some kids paying in instalments.

Ms. Laverty and Charlotte Yates, McMaster's dean of the faculty of social sciences, friends who teamed up to create the trip last year, are hoping to collect long-term data to see if the program will actually nudge postsecondary schooling among Cathy Wever grads. As far as they know, there are no other initiatives like it.

To Ms. Yates, the program is part of her mandate to tackle poverty outside McMaster's gates. "I don't think you can harm a child by raising their expectations," she says.

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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