By Caroline Alphonso
Emily Heath* was always an eager student. She got high marks in school and, after university, pursued not one, but two, law degrees. School was never difficult for her. But as a parent? History is a struggle. Math classes might as well be taught in Greek. Not only is she having trouble guiding her 16-year-old son, Steven*, down the same academic path she once eagerly travelled, it’s possible he may quit the journey altogether and drop out.
Steven has always been bright. The quiet, middle-class Toronto boy devoured books from an early age, performed well in elementary school and easily managed complex physics equations until only recently. Yet he’s flunking high school. Boys, Heath fears, bottle up too much and act out by failing. You see, Heath separated from Steven’s father three years ago, and Steven has become increasingly withdrawn since. “I’m in way over my head,” says Heath, 47. “I have no clue what to do with this kid.”
Here’s what she has done: hired a math tutor and an educational coach to help Steven organize his school work. Sat side by side with him at the kitchen table and worked on civics and math assignments, sessions that typically ended in arguments or tears. “It breaks my heart that he’s so unhappy,” Heath says, her desperate voice cracking. “I think the education system is so removed from his reality that he can’t fathom why it’s of any benefit to him.”
Heath’s concerns are not hers alone. Hundreds of parents across Canada are trying to keep their children from falling into an educational abyss. Philip Oreopoulos, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Toronto, says teenagers tend to give up in their final years of high school just after they hit 16. Today, about 212,000, or one in 10, Canadians between the ages of 20 and 24 don’t have their high-school diploma, even as the value of a high-school education continues to influence future earnings like never before. (According to 2001 census data, for instance, an employed 30- to-39-year-old with a bachelor’s degree earned, on average, $48,725, while someone without a high-school diploma earned $28,167.) Consequently, there are all kinds of government and school district efforts afoot these days to keep teenagers in class. Parents in provinces such as Alberta are fined if their children skip class; employers in New Brunswick can be dinged up to $570 if they employ students during school hours; and Ontario plans to be the first province in Canada to revoke the driver’s licences of dropouts. But as much as governments try, experts say dropout-proofing your kid starts at home. And it begins as soon as your child is born.
Every child is different, but experts say there are lots of things parents can do to keep kids caring about school. “A lot of the action in preventing dropout happens in the earlier years, like zero to five or six,” says Oreopoulos, who has studied the issue. Some scholastic expectations are good, too: “If a child is raised in an environment where school is valued and dropping out is just not even part of the household’s vocabulary, then the child really doesn’t think it’s something to consider.” Reading to your young children and providing them with high-quality child care, at daycare and at home, is key, he says. Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University in South Carolina, even recommends listening to baroque music.
Being active in your children’s lives is as important as exposing them to books and music. As they grow older, talk to your kids about their career plans and the education skills they’ll need to get there. Set aside time for homework as early as possible. If they’re falling behind, get them extra help. If your child is truly turned off, changing schools or programs could be an option. Many schools have had to cut back on the “extras” or alternative programs that have historically kept those who weren’t university-bound in school, says Frank Peters, an educational policy studies professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Now it’s up to parents to find programs to spark their children’s interests, and not just in the academic realm. Involving them in clubs or sports builds confidence and self-esteem. Dropouts don’t typically participate much in extracurricular activities at school or in their community.
There’s no guaranteed equation to keep kids from dropping out. “It’s a process rather than an event,” explains Peters. And some are more at risk. Boys are more likely to quit than girls for a variety of reasons, including the false notion they will be able to land good-paying jobs without a diploma. Children with learning disabilities drop out more often, as do those living in poverty. And although a higher proportion of dropouts come from families with low levels of education, the problem isn’t confined to the less advantaged—the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers can also be at risk.
Smink says a child held back in school once has a 40 per cent chance of dropping out. Being held back twice raises those chances to 90 per cent. The data is comparable between the U.S. and Canada, he says. On average, dropouts perform a full reading proficiency level below peers of the same age who go on to graduate, according to Statistics Canada. “I tell a lot of people that if your youngster isn’t reading at grade level by Grade 3, you better begin to look for some major interventions, such as tutoring,” says Smink.
Other warning signs among older children and teens: working long hours at a part-time job, missing school, avoiding homework and extracurricular activities or hanging out a lot alone. “If the child seems to be turned off in general, that should be a warning signal,” Peters says. “It’s extremes that you’re looking for here.” Smink adds: “Most of the kids—and I’ve probably interviewed thousands of them—when asked, ‘Why did you drop out,’ or ‘Why do you want to drop out,’ say to me, ‘Nobody cared whether I stayed in school or not.”
For Steven, there’s been no lack of care. Heath read to him as a child, sent him to camp every summer, went the extra mile to help when his grades started slipping. Clearly a parent can be extremely attentive but still watch helplessly as his or her child lashes out by failing school. Peters advises parents to turn to a psychologist for assistance, but cautions that it may also be a matter of giving your child a bit of breathing room – hopefully he will come to you, he says.
Karen Pym* of Calgary is still waiting and hoping. Her 19-year-old daughter, Joanne*, dropped out in Grade 12. Joanne excelled in her elementary-school years. Sure, there were occasional complaints from teachers that she was disrupting the class or taking too many washroom breaks, but nothing so serious that Pym or her husband had to worry. But in high school, everything changed. Joanne discovered marijuana, > graffiti and shoplifting. “There was an attitudinal shift that went from ‘I want to succeed’ to ‘I want to be bad,” says Pym.
Pym and her husband still don’t know what triggered the change. She recalls a report card that showed her daughter had missed half of her classes, although none of Joanne’s teachers had called home to report the skipping. So Pym and her husband took Joanne to counselling, hired a tutor and enrolled her in at least five different schools, ranging from traditional to alternative. Nothing helped. As tensions rose, fights became routine. Finally, Pym kicked Joanne out of the house. “Tough love,” she says. Joanne quit school and moved in with a friend. Now she’s back home and works two retail jobs. She talks about going back to high school, but her mom doesn’t know when – or if – it will happen.
As for Heath, she finds comfort in the fact that Steven is considering transferring schools and may be too scared to drop out altogether. Thus far, he’s resisted her last-ditch suggestion that he leave high school and return later. “Sometimes I think dropping out would be better for him,” explains Heath. “Sometimes you really need that hard thunk to make you wake up and say, ‘Whoa, this is actually going to be my future.”
Jonah, 15, might have also slipped through the academic cracks had his parents not intervened when he was 12. Rex Weyler, his father, remembers seeing Jonah walking up the stairs to the front door after a day at school, his face drooping and depressed. “All he knew is that everyone could read but him,” says Weyler. Jonah has dyslexia, a learning disability that affects reading, writing and spelling. He was too shy to ask teachers for help, and the teachers didn’t necessarily have the time and resources to assist him.
Weyler, a writer, and his wife, Lisa Gibbons, a painter, became Jonah’s advocates, knowing that if they didn’t step in, their middle child could fail. They pulled him from the public-school system in Grade 6 and drained their bank accounts to send him to Fraser Academy, an independent Vancouver school that helps students with language-based learning disabilities, for three years. Now he’s back in the public system because private school was getting too expensive and Jonah wanted to be with his neighbourhood friends. But that means extra efforts: Mom and Dad help Jonah understand assignments and tutor him in math, science and English. Their dining-room study area is littered with papers.
If it wasn’t for this collective effort, Jonah knows his schooling would have been much more difficult. “I wouldn’t really have liked it because I’d be doing pretty bad,” he says, his voice trailing off. His father agrees. “He’d have failed out or dropped out,” he says, adding that the public-education system needs to do more to catch the struggling ones. “We learned about it by going through it. Now our kid is about three years away from graduating from high school,” says Weyler. “I wish I had known [how to advocate] from day one in Grade 1.”
Sara Thompson says yes. The 34-year-old Toronto native dropped out of high school and left home at age 15. Her story, and others below, proves that those who quit classes can go on to career and even scholastic success.
To pay the bills after she quit school, Thompson worked menial jobs, answering telephones for $6 an hour, if that. She even lied about her age at one point and got a job bartending in Toronto. Then she hit her 20s and decided she wanted more. “I wouldn’t be here now had I not gotten out into the real world and worked a series of really crappy jobs and realized the value of going back to school,” says Thompson, who completed her master’s at the University of Toronto and is now in her third year of doing her Ph.D. “I don’t regret it one bit.”
Dropping out of high school may seem like the end of your child’s world. But like Thompson, it can be a formative experience after which he goes back to school and excels. That was also the case for Joe Cloutier, who quit high school at 15. After doing odd jobs driving trucks and working in construction, Cloutier upgraded his high-school skills and registered at the University of Alberta. Today, he has come full circle and now runs Edmonton’s Inner City High, a school that offers at-risk students an academic and arts-based alternative to traditional schooling. Cloutier doesn’t necessarily regret the path he took, as he had little choice at the time. These days, though, it may be tough to accomplish as much without graduating from high school. Many blue-collar jobs need at least a diploma.
Canadian Auto Workers president, Buzz Hargrove, regrets leaving the classroom, despite his accomplishments. Also a high-school dropout, he grew up in stark rural poverty in New Brunswick. He left home after his parents separated – doing odd jobs and eventually landing work at Chrysler. “I think education is extremely important. There have been awkward moments for me when I’m debating someone and they’re using words that I’m not familiar with,” he says. “Once I decide that I’ve had enough of this, I would like to spend some time sharing my experiences and knowledge with university students, at the same time taking advantage of being there to study and get a degree,” he says.
*Some names have been changed upon request.