Calgary’s high school dropout rate costs the city’s economy millions a year and robs thousands of kids of a fair shot at a decent future. United Way of Calgary's "All in for Youth" initiative is trying to change that

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United Way Goes All In For Youth

At this time last year, Jermaine Villaflores was working at KFC. Or maybe it was Second Cup; he’s fuzzy on the exact dates. What he does remember with clarity is that a six-hour shift schlepping chicken is no kind of fun. Friendly and soft-spoken, Villaflores, 20, seems like a bright kid. Just a few months out of high school, with no diploma, humping a minimum wage job … he hadn’t seen this life coming. So what, exactly, went wrong?

Less than you might think. 

In Calgary, only 74 per cent of students who enter Grade 10 finish high school in three years. The number ticks up after four years. By year five, it reaches nearly 80 per cent. Flip that statistic around and it means one out of every five high school students won’t have a diploma by their early 20s. 

Last year, 37,645 students registered for high school with Calgarys two major school boards — about 12,500 students per grade. Roughly 70 per cent of those students went to public schools, with the balance in the Catholic system. Each year, another 2,500 of those students still won’t have a diploma after five years of high school. Some will plug away until they finish. Others will drop out. 

In the richest city in the country’s most affluent province, what does it say that 20 per cent of high school kids aren’t graduating? More importantly, what does it mean for those 2,500 kids?

Lucy Miller has been asking those questions for years. Prior to taking over as head of the United Way of Calgary last March, she spent five years as chief superintendent of the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD). Before that, she was in Ottawa schools for 20 years, moving from teacher to principal to superintendent. 

She believes too many Calgarians are far too complacent about the dropout rate. In her mind, a status quo in which thousands of kids fail to finish school each year should be unacceptable. “Every time a child drops out of high school, we should mourn,” says Miller. “It should be a catastrophic day in the city when a child drops out of high school. That’s the message we’re trying to give now.”

In fall 2012, the United Way began a pilot project designed to help the students who fall through the cracks. Catching one or two kids isn’t the point, says Miller — she wants them all. In June 2013, a full-scale assault on the high school dropout rate was officially launched by the United Way in partnership with Alberta Education, both school boards, Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Alberta Health Services, corporate Calgary, SAIT Polytechnic, Bow Valley College, the Calgary Police Service, local philanthropists and others.

Miller describes the initiative, called “‘All in’ for Youth,” as the most ambitious project of its kind in Canada. But, to be successful, it may need to be even more than that.  

Educational researchers struggle to identify why someone quits school. It’s rarely due to a single factor or even a handful of reasons. In most cases, dropping out isn’t an event or a discrete decision made during high school; rather, it’s an iteration of a process that typically begins much earlier. Family, community, individual makeup and schools all play a role in whether a student drops out, as do factors such as apathy, disinterest and disengagement. The strength of Alberta’s economy, ironically, also drags down Calgary’s graduation rate. The chance to work on the rigs or on a seismic crew draws some 18-year-olds away from school before they finish. Dropout rates are further influenced by another layer of complexity that includes homelessness, poverty, addiction and mental health issues. 

Calgary’s high school completion rate is hardly a new issue for the city. Making progress, though, is a tough slog. It’s not as if teachers, schools, parents and the province have ignored the problem until now. They all care. Many plans have been hatched over the years, only to see good intentions waylaid by the murderer’s row of issues that need to be tackled all together. But the United Way remains optimistic about this new initiative and sees any number of groups already pulling in the same direction. If it can bring some cohesion to what’s already out there and fill in the gaps where necessary, it has the potential to make some real headway. It remains to be seen whether this newest attempt can really move the needle. 

Don Cope thinks it can. After 32 years as a teacher, counsellor, administrator and principal, he retired from the CCSD in 2011Early last fall, a former colleague, now at the United Way, asked if Cope was interested in phoning students who hadn’t shown up to school in September, stopped attending during the fall term or otherwise fell off the radar. 

He agreed and became one of two retired teachers working for the United Way’s pilot program. For Cope’s first go-round calling students who had disappeared from Bishop McNally High School, his list included 60 names. Of those, he reached about 40, half of whom decided to return to school after his call. His public school counterpart at Central Memorial High School, the other high school in the pilot program, notched a similar success rate.

“Every time a child drops out of high school, we should mourn.” Lucy Miller, head of the United Way of Calgary

“I would simply contact the student and explain that I was calling from ... a joint project between the United Way and the school district,” Cope says. “I would say that I was aware that they were out of school and was just wondering if they had a few minutes to talk about what happened, and whether or not a return to school was something they’d considered.” 

In multiple instances, Cope talked to kids, particularly those learning English as an additional language, who didn’t realize returning to school was even possible. “As they get close to the end of their Grade 12 year, someone sits them down and says, ‘You don’t have enough credits to graduate,’ ” says Cope. “They’ve heard messages for three years that high school is a three-year program, so they’re feeling like, ‘Okay, my three years are up, I don’t have my credits, now what?’ And, because of the level of anxiety they have and because of communication issues with respect to ... language, they end up leaving school at the end of June without a really clear picture of what their options are — even though those options were explained to them.”

Such a simple misunderstanding carries such profound, lifelong consequences, it’s distressing to think about it happening even once, let alone with any frequency. In those cases, at least, an easy fix is at hand. Different situations, whether rooted in finances, domestic circumstances or otherwise, take more work. Whatever the specifics, Cope walks kids through their available options — flexible scheduling, alternative classes, tutoring, mentorship, bursaries and other choices, many of them provided by the United Way’s partners in the “All In” initiative. 

Playing a part in bringing 20 kids back to school is intensely gratifying for Cope. He’s even more encouraged by what might happen when more schools are involved and calls are made throughout the year. 

The United Way has expanded the program to include six more schools and two outreach programs this year: Bishop O’Byrne, Father Lacombe, Forest Lawn, James Fowler, Lord Beaverbrook, St. Anne Academic Centre, Chinook Learning Services, Discovery Choices Outreach and Encore. The plan, eventually, is to roll out the initiative to every high school in the city. Cope believes getting someone back in school is often just about timing. Some students, he says, need to experience the world beyond the school doors before they’ll finally get the message they’ve been hearing their whole lives.

Six months removed from high school, Villaflores was ready to listen. By then, he’d added three months at Budget Rent-A-Car to his roll call of low-paying jobs. He shakes his head recalling how his life slid off the tracks.

In Grade 11, he posted solid marks, had a good part-time job and a steady girlfriend. The next year, circumstances took a turn. His girlfriend dumped him, he lost his job at an audiovisual company and he racked up $5,000 in credit card debt. He also plugged in to the club scene. “I kind of got ... into bad habits that I’m not involved in anymore,” says Villaflores. “I liked to party, smoke marijuana, that kind of thing.”

“Every single one of those students who’s not completing high school has their own story and their own reasons for not following through.” Jillian Cann, Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary

But not walking the stage with his classmates during graduation was a wake-up call. Villaflores realized he needed a plan and he needed some help. Last December, he approached Bishop McNally High School about coming back to graduate. His vice principal told him about the United Way pilot project and how it could help him make a successful return to school.

Jillian Cann, 28, has worked for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary for the past three years. Since February, she has been embedded at Central Memorial High School as a part of the “All In” program. Officially, she’s a “success coach.” Practically, she describes her job as making life “just a little bit easier” for students who need her help.

A mass education system, by definition, is designed for the majority of students. It’s a practical model, but one with gaps. A whole host of issues exist that might derail students at the margin from finishing high school. Even the daily routine of getting to school and back, Cann says, can be a big hurdle.

The school boards subsidize transit passes, but the application process can take months. Although students recently became eligible for Calgary Transit’s low-income transit pass rate, $44 a month is still too much for some. Enter the Burns Memorial Fund, which, through the United Way initiative, offers students financial assistance for a range of expenses until the school board subsidy comes through. 

A bus pass, says Cann, can be the difference between attending school and not showing up for two months. “Every single one of those students who’s not completing high school has their own story and their own reasons for not following through,” Cann says. “I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on in their lives ... I just try to meet them where they’re at.”

Some students may need academic or career planning. For others, it’s tutoring. Still others are dealing with even heavier issues such as homelessness, mental health, poverty or addiction. Part of Cann’s job is knowing what support is available for each situation and putting students together with help that’s already out there. 

She meets students in coffee shops. She calls and texts. Her age helps, as does working for an outside agency, which allows for different boundaries than being a school board employee. Once, she took a student interested in drama to a play at Alberta Theatre Projects. She wants to take another to a concert. Some students, Cann says, don’t know what’s even possible, so she tries to show them what might come next.

What comes next is a big part of the “All In” for Youth project. While the goal is increasing the high school completion rate, one of the ways of doing that is to reinforce the notion that a high school diploma is a marker on the pathway to something more. 

Miller talks about what follows high school to both students and potential backers she wants to galvanize. The United Way has raised half of the $8 million it needs to fund the first five years of its initiative. 

Lowering Calgary’s dropout rate is an idea Miller believes sells itself. Still, when she needs a little push, part of her go-to pitch is an economic analysis by a researcher from Simon Fraser University that pegs the cost to society of high school non-completion at more than $15,000 per student per year. Compared to high school graduates, the 2008 study finds that costs for health care, social assistance and crime are all higher for people who don’t finish high school and, because a dropout’s income is typically much lower, governments also lose out on potential tax revenue. Using those estimates, if 3,000 Calgary high school students drop out each year, the annual cost of that group to the local economy is estimated to be roughly $48 million.  

Miller also sells the flipside — graduation and getting a job. Her corporate partners — FluorDevon Canada and Imperial Oil — are donating money, as well as lining up employees to volunteer as tutors and mentors in the program. 

Nadine Barber, who works in public and government affairs at Devon, says volunteer numbers are in the tens right now, but she believes the figure will climb into the hundreds when the program gets rolling in earnest. Corporate Calgary is also forthright about its self-interest in getting more kids to graduate: it has jobs waiting at the end of the road and it needs people to fill them. 

Canada’s potential labour shortage is the subject of much debate, whether in the context of the temporary foreign worker program or the Harper government’s steady invocation of the skills mismatch between workers and industry. Economists are divided about the extent of the issue for Canada as a whole and whether it should drive policy, but they do agree Alberta will need more skilled workers in the foreseeable future. 

Miller says she is more invested in pragmatism than politics. If offering a path into the trades works for kids and makes sense for companies, then she takes it as serendipity. She’s not looking to reinvent the wheel. Whether it’s school boards, government programs or non-profits, she sees a lot of the heavy lifting already being done. Other resources, like corporate Calgary, are still waiting to be tapped. For such an unwieldy problem that lacks a one-size-fits-all solution, Miller knows the United Way will have to feel its way along, especially in the early days — enlist partners, figure out how to get the most out of existing resources, bring some fresh ideas to the table and see what work.

“We’re here to ... make them realize that, through education, they can do just about anything." Scott McArthur, general manager of business development and sales at Fluor

Scott McArthur, general manager of business development and sales at Fluor, says downtown Calgary is ready to do its part. His company would like to see more students learn a trade but would be equally happy if they make a different choice. 

“We see the opportunity for kids to go into the trades, long-term, but that’s not what we’re here for,” says McArthur. “We’re here to ... make them realize that, through education, they can do just about anything. Really, what we want to say is, ‘Listen, one path is the trades, one path may be design school, another is university, another may be art college.’”

It’s noon hour in late May at Bishop McNally and the bleachers in the school gym are filled with kids half-paying attention to two courts of co-ed intramural volleyball. Villaflores, back in school since the winter term, rotates back to serve. By this time next month, he’ll have graduated. All he needed was some tutoring and some direction. The school’s new success coach helped him get both. A former volleyball coach for the junior varsity team, Villaflores lays down a nifty jump serve for an ace. He rattles off four more points before the other team gets a side out. 

He wants to go to college to become a pharmacy technician. With those credentials, he figures he can get a hospital job and put himself through nursing. After that, he likes his chances of landing a nursing job at the same hospital. It sounds like a solid plan. 

His team wins just as lunchtime ends. He shrugs off a compliment about his jump serve. “I’m rusty,” he says over his shoulder as he trots toward the locker room. He’s in a hurry. The bell is ringing. He has to get to class. 

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