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Article of Interest - Drop Outs

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Bridges4Kids LogoDropouts Face Bleak Job Future
Tough curriculum leaves many without diploma. Making more than minimum wage all but impossible.
Theresa Boyle, The Toronto Star, October 25, 2004
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Christopher Hayes reaches into the back pocket of his blue jeans and pulls out a crumpled piece of paper. It's his pay stub from the previous two weeks' work. His net take-home pay after working 84 hours is $547.98. That's a meager $7.75 an hour, the dejected 20-year old points out.

For Hayes, who has only a Grade 10 education, the prospects of finding a well-paying job are slim. And he's not alone. Hayes is one of thousands of Ontario youth known as "curriculum casualties" — students who have struggled with the tough, new high school curriculum and with the mandatory Grade 10 literacy test.

According to a report prepared for the provincial government by Queen's University professor Alan King and released last January, the rate of students who failed to complete high school has hit record levels. A projected 48,000 students didn't have enough credits to graduate in 2003. That's a staggering 30 per cent of Ontario students who failed to graduate, up 8 per cent from the previous year.

It's not yet clear how many of those students are taking longer than four years to accumulate enough credits for graduation, and how many have given up on high school entirely.

While Ontario's year-old Liberal government is making strides in stemming the flow, critics say it is not moving fast enough and is not doing enough to help those who have already left the system.

Hayes' story of dropping out of school is similar to that of many young men who struggle in the education system. He has a learning disability, having been put on Ritalin at age 11 for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Around the same time, his parents split up, and for a few years he had no contact with his father. His older brother also dropped out. He's had run-ins with the law and has done time for stealing cars. He was expelled from school a number of times with truancy being his main sin. He struggled with his schoolwork, especially math. "I hated school. I didn't find it interesting. I couldn't sit still for hours. I would tap my fingers or swirl my pen," he says, demonstrating the gestures.

"I didn't want to be there when it came to sitting down and going to class... boring," he adds. Hayes dreams of a day when he'll marry his girlfriend have children and own a house. He'd like to go to college and study business so he can open up his own landscaping company. But first he needs to graduate from high school.

"I'd like to get my diploma. I know I need it. I can't work for $7.75 forever," he says. In the meantime he's happy to take whatever he can get, and has worked at Canadian Tire for seven months, stocking shelves and assembling store displays.

With few skills, his job prospects are slim. Consider the following: In Ontario, 69.2 per cent of the growth in employment over the past decade was in jobs requiring a post-secondary education, according to the post-secondary review being conducted by former premier Bob Rae.

The unemployment rate in 1998 for people age 15 to 29 without a high school diploma was 23 per cent, compared to 5.2 per cent for those with graduate degrees, according to Statistics Canada.

As for salaries, anyone looking for jobs after dropping out of school is lucky to make more than $8 an hour, says Krista Ray, job developer at the Gateway Café, an employment centre for youth, located on the Danforth.

"They're entry-level jobs in most cases. We call them survival jobs. It's enough to survive, but not enough to save money," explains Diana Gatti, divisional coordinator of Gateway.

Still, the jobs give young people valuable work experience and help them develop skills, she notes. The agency provides wage subsidies to employers as an incentive to hire its clients.

On this day, Natasha Finbow, 18, is sussing out the prospects on the Gateway job board. Like Hayes, she has a Grade 10 education, dropped out of school in 2002 and has had some brushes with the law. Like Hayes, she wants to go back to school.

She is the epitome of a curriculum casualty. "I think the changes they brought in are ridiculous," she says. "You end up doing four hours of homework a night because they tried to squish five years of school into four. A project deadline that used to be one week is now two or three days."

Finbow's resume includes a three-week stint at Molly Maid, where she earned $8 an hour, and a six-month stint at a pizza parlor for $9 an hour.

"It doesn't take a genius to scrub a bathtub, but you can't go anywhere in life without a high school diploma," she says.

Finbow wants to be a social worker but has found that even getting back into school is a challenge. She wants to go to an alternative school, but there's a waiting list.

"There's a big stump in the way, so I'm taking a detour," she says philosophically.

Not only are these young people being squeezed out of the education system, but they're also being squeezed out of the workplace, suggests Matt Wood, executive director of the Ontario Association of Youth Employment Centers.

"There's a trend toward credentialism in society in general. Jobs that could once be filled with only high school or less than high school (education) now require post secondary," he says.

Many trades that offer apprenticeships also require a high school diploma, he adds. And even for ones that don't, there's so much competition that those who haven't completed high school get squeezed out.

"It's increasingly difficult for students without high school diplomas to enter into long-term and meaningful employment," says Rhonda Kimberley-Young, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation. "Their options are fewer than they were in the past and certainly they're low paid and generally don't have much stability. They might be seasonal jobs, or casual or part-time."

What frightens Kimberley-Young is that the province might not have seen the worst of the dropout tide yet. While Education Minister Gerard Kennedy predicts we'll see fewer dropouts in June next year as his government's initiatives start to take effect, we still don't know how the class of 2004 fared.

"I would like to think that we've seen the worst of the dropout rate, but I'm not sure that we have," Kimberley-Young says.

While a provincial review of the curriculum is ongoing and some changes have already been made, more needs to be done — and fast, she says.

"I'll give this government credit for a having a genuine concern for students at risk of not getting their diploma (but change) needs to happen more quickly than it is," she says.

Kennedy said he's well aware of the problems and is taking pains to address them. "Students will have something of a compromised future... I think they are a generation (facing) more struggles than should have been necessary," he acknowledges, noting that the former Conservative government ignored many warnings about the "alarming" impact the curriculum changes would have.

"There is no excuse really for... the system not having responded better, sooner on their behalf," he says. In June, his government announced $100 million in initiatives aimed at "stopping the slide for students getting lost in the system." This included the creation of "rescue teams" of educators to target support for struggling students, and the development of courses aimed at meeting their interests and abilities.

Meantime, Kennedy's parliamentary assistant Kathleen Wynne is reviewing adult education in an attempt to make it easier for dropouts to complete their high school education.

And locally, the Toronto District School Board has approved a plan to expand and promote tutoring, remedial, guidance and summer school programs for at-risk students. Trustees also agreed to ask province for funding so they can hire staff to help students stay in school.

Annie Kidder of the advocacy group People for Education says any corrective measures must take into account students who already have dropped out.

"What's frustrating in the education system is that sometimes decision makers admit, 'Oh yeah, we made a mistake. We'll go back and fix it.'"


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