Carolyn Acker, Founder of Pathways to Education
The Pathways to Education program was born out of the vision of Regent Park’s Community Health Centre: that the children of the community would become the doctors, nurses, social workers, community health workers, and administrators of the Health Centre and within the community.
In 2001, Pathways to Education was developed by Carolyn Acker, then Executive Director of the Regent Park Community Health Centre, together with Norman Rowen, the first Program Director for the Pathways program. Ten years later the high school dropout rate in that community has decreased by over 70 per cent, and post-secondary attendance has grown from 20 per cent to 80 per cent for graduates of the program. Today, the Pathways program has been replicated in ten more low income communities and close to 4,000 students are getting results that mirror these.
A Collective Movement of the Community
Attempts to reduce the high drop-out rates in economically disadvantaged communities have been largely unsuccessful. School-based initiatives and reforms alone have not been able to change these results in large part because the risk factors for dropping out are not limited to the school environment; a number of critical factors influencing the success of our youth at school are found in the communities in which we live.
Shifting the lens from a singular focus on the school environment, to a broader focus on the community as a whole, inclusive of its schools, became a driving force behind the design of the Pathways program.
In 1999, Executive Director of the Regent Park Community Health Centre, Carolyn Acker, began to observe the rapid deterioration of this low income community. The Health Centre’s services and programs expanded to meet the changing needs, yet as they were struggling to meet the needs of the community, the violence began increasing yearly. The community witnessed young men involved in gangs, drug selling, and murders from the use of handguns. The atmosphere in the community was one of despair and hopelessness and the youth involved in these activities were getting younger and younger.
The year that the Health Centre began to conduct research for the program that would become Pathways, there were nine murders in Regent Park – and there was a palpable sense of despair. The parents in the community, of all cultures, feared for their children’s safety, and feared for their future. Yet they wanted the same things for their kids as middle class parents. And they knew intuitively, and experientially, what the research would bear out; the community had a serious problem with young people who weren’t finishing high school.
Closing the Achievement Gap
What was uncovered, through action research, was a high school dropout rate of 56 per cent in Regent Park, fully twice the average for the City of Toronto. And for the children of single parents, and immigrants it was more than 70 per cent. After listening to parents, to the young people themselves, after hearing the staff from local agencies and from the local elementary schools, and after considering the best practices of programs which had been successful in raising academic achievement, Carolyn Acker and Norman Rowen set to designing the Pathways program.
Based in the community, the program would provide four integrated supports over four years of secondary school:
- Tutoring four nights per week in the community
- TTC tickets or lunch vouchers earned through attendance, plus a $4,000 scholarship to be used towards post-secondary costs payable to the college or university
- Group mentoring for grades 9 and 10; specialty/career mentoring for grades 11 and 12
- Student Parent Support Workers, staff who are a bridge between the community, parents, students, high schools and the program
With critical funding from early supporters, particularly The Counselling Foundation and The Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Pathways to Education program prepared to open its doors.
In September 2001, the flagship Pathways to Education model in Regent Park welcomed its first cohort of Grade 9 students offering them tutoring, mentoring and bus tickets to school.
Their parents were offered guidance in Canadian customs and institutions, and other forms of support. Students, together with their parents, signed agreements to participate in that first program; and they have done so in record numbers ever since.
A critical component of Pathways’ accountability to the students, parents and funders was its focus on measuring results to ensure the program was working. After five years, research and evaluation identified ground-breaking results: specifically, for the students participating in the program, there was a reduction in dropout rates of over 70 percent and an increase in post-secondary attendance of over 300 percent.
Taken together, the four supports that have become the Pathways to Education program have proven to our young people that the community will not abandon them. Losing so many, to crime, to drugs, to despair, was not an option. The community raised their expectations of the Health Centre and the Health Centre, in turn, raised our expectation of our youth and of the schools.
Successful National Replication
As a result of the success of its flagship Regent Park program, the leadership of Pathways to Education began to envision the possibility that the program could serve the needs of youth in similar low-income communities across Canada. Under the leadership of board members including Samuel L. Duboc and Greg Keissling, and with Carolyn Acker as the founding Executive Director, Pathways Canada was established in 2005, with the goal of replicating this innovative program in communities across the country.
In 2007, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), under the leadership of the late David Pecaut, undertook a ground-breaking analysis of the Pathways program that applied vigorous analysis and measurement of the program’s short and long-term impact. The results of this study confirmed what the founders of Pathways always believed, that by removing the barriers that can stand in the way of education, students living in low-income communities could experience the same or better academic success as their peers in more affluent neighbourhoods. With a focus on identifiable and quantifiable benefits, primarily higher taxes paid (on higher incomes earned) and reduced government transfer payments, the BCG study also revealed that for every one dollar invested in Pathways, a $24 social return on investment was generated for the broader community.
In 2007, Pathways opened its doors to five new communities. In Toronto, Pathways programs opened in the Rexdale and Lawrence Heights communities, with The Toronto Star newspaper announcing the expansion on its front page. Pathways’ launch in Ottawa, Kitchener and Montréal characterized true geographic expansion and the goal to serve diverse communities across the country.
In 2009, David Hughes joined Pathways to Education Canada as President and CEO, with Carolyn Acker staying on as Founder. That same year saw Pathways expansion into communities in Hamilton and Toronto’s Scarborough. In the spring of 2010, three new sites joined the Pathways family - Winnipeg, Kingston in Ontario, and Nova Scotia’s Halifax communities - bringing the total number of sites to eleven.
As Pathways to Education enters its tenth year of operation, the organization remains as committed as ever to serving those communities who need it most and delivering measurable results. In 2011, Pathways launched its ‘Graduation Nation’ initiative, a five-year plan to establish new sites in communities across Canada with the vision of making Canada a country where all youth have an equal opportunity to graduate from high school.
Learn About Us
- Founded in 2001, Pathways now operates in 15 communities across Canada
- The Pathways program provides a comprehensive set of academic, financial and social supports to youth
- By 2016, Pathways will serve over 10,000 students and alumni each year