The Pathways to Education Program was born out of the vision of Regent Park’s Community Health Centre, in Toronto, Ontario: 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, and 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 across Canada and thousands of students are getting similar results. 

A Collective Movement of the Community

Attempts to reduce the high dropout 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 the low-income community at Regent Park. 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 people 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. 

In the year that the Health Centre began to conduct research for the program that would be Pathways, there were nine murders in Regent Park and a palpable sense of despair. The parents in the community feared for their children’s safety, and their futures. All they wanted was to see their children succeed and be safe but based on the research, the reality of what was happening in the community was a serious problem: young people 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, 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 and to the young people; hearing from staff of local agencies and local elementary schools, Carolyn Acker and Norman Rowen set to work. They considered best practices that had been used successfully by other programs to raise academic achievement and began designing the foundation of 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 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 per cent and an increase in post-secondary attendance of over 300 per cent. 

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 – is not an option. The community raised their expectations of the Health Centre and the Health Centre, in turn, raised expectations of the youth and of the schools. 

Successful National Replication

As a result of the success of its flagship Pathways 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 to Education Canada was established in 2005, with the goal of replicating the 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 rigorous 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.

Since the first Pathways Program location was established in Regent Park, Toronto, Ontario, Pathways to Education has expanded arcross Canada, serving students from coast-to-coast.

Pathways to Education remains as committed as ever to serving those communities who need it most and delivering measurable results.