It’s back to school across Canada and back to the routine of classes, homework and studying.
But many students are struggling to get on track after the impact of the pandemic as well as economic challenges that are hampering their ability to learn and thrive in school.
It was a difficult learning and social environment for high school students due to restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19, and now the rising cost of living is weighing on their families as well.
Students from disadvantaged groups, such as newcomers and racialized communities, are feeling the effects disproportionally.
Owen Hinds, a Program Director at Pathways to Education — a Canadian charitable organization that provides youth living in low-income communities with academic, financial, social, and one-on-one supports to help them successfully graduate from high school — has seen the toll.
Hinds works with students in the Lawrence Heights community of Toronto and says he has seen school attendance, graduation rates and the transition to post-secondary take a hit in recent years.
“It wasn't that the pandemic caused it, but the pandemic really exposed a lot of the socioeconomic realities that a lot of our communities are dealing with,” said Hinds. “Everything is exacerbated.”
Approximately 1.4 million high school students hit the books again this month across Canada, but as many as 300,000 high school students are at risk of dropping out every year. This has ramifications for both the individual and Canada’s overall economy.
For example, a person without a high school diploma earns 80% of what a high school graduate earns, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
As well, the more years of education a young person has attained, the lower the unemployment rate. In 2021, the unemployment rate for individuals between the ages of 25 and 29 was 14.6% for those without a high school diploma, compared to 12% for high school graduates and 7.3% for those who went to college or completed a trade, according to Statistics Canada.
The work of Pathways to Education and other education-focused organizations are aimed at helping youth from underserved communities stay in school and reach their full potential.
Our goal is to battle poverty through education. And in order for them to graduate, we need to address whatever their needs might be.”
Scotiabank, through its 10-year, $500-million ScotiaRISE initiative to promote economic resilience among disadvantaged groups, supports several education-focused partners to help increase high school graduation and post-secondary participation. That includes the Pathways Program, which last year supported 6,879 students across Canada including 1,604 newcomer and immigrant youth.
Another program supported by Scotiabank is the YMCA Alternative Suspension program, which works with at-risk youth facing suspension by using it as an opportunity to engage with them and encourage them to stay in school. As well, the Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada’s Scotiabank Stay In School program aims to support young people and bolster high school graduation rates of young people living in government care by providing access to tutoring, mentoring and school supplies.
Disadvantaged students face barriers that can disproportionately impact their opportunities to attain and complete education, says Meigan Terry, Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability, Social Impact and Communications Officer at Scotiabank.
“Whether its financial instability, food insecurity, lack of educational resources, all these factors make it harder for youth to graduate from high school. And we know that a high school diploma is critical for their future employment and financial security. Scotiabank is committed to working with partners such as Pathways to Education to help students get the support they need to succeed and build economic resilience.”
Alejandra Cabezas is now the Senior Manager of Alumni Engagement at Pathways’ national office but for the last decade she worked with youth in the Pathways Program in the Scarborough Village neighbourhood of Toronto, where she saw firsthand the additional challenges disadvantaged youth face — particularly during the height of COVID-19.
For example, a multi-generational family living in an apartment is a challenging environment in which to learn virtually, she added, citing inconsistent Internet and a lack of electronic devices.
“We would have kids trying to write an essay in Grade 11 or Grade 12 from their parents’ cellphone,” she said.
The Pathways program provides access to technology for youth who need it. During the pandemic, this meant providing devices such as Chromebooks so students could do online learning.
The pandemic also had a disproportionate impact economically on some newcomer families. Many of the households had parents or family members that worked in retail and other front-line jobs, and infection rates were high, Cabezas said.
A lot of our task is about how we work alongside a family to help them ultimately achieve the goals and the dreams that they have for themselves.”
“These students were touched by COVID, not just financially or because they got sick, but because they lost a loved one — sometimes the sole income earner at home,” she said.
Now, inflation and rising food prices are taking a toll.
“Individuals who were already barely keeping their heads above water are now being impacted significantly. Food security concerns are a reality,” said Hinds.
All these factors are weighing on graduation rates and the transition to post-secondary education. Some students are feeling pressure to drop out of high school in order to help their families financially, said Cabezas.
“There’s the temptation to completely drop out of high school and do something else because they need to survive,” she said.
As well, some students who did graduate were putting off their post-secondary education after their pandemic experience, said Hinds.
“Many students were feeling that they didn’t know if they were quite ready to make that transition to post secondary. They weren’t sure whether they would be successful.”
In 2022, Pathways to Education resumed programming in person, using the lessons learned from the pandemic to incorporate accessible virtual programming. This flexibility allows Pathways to adapt supports to the specific needs of students to help them overcome the evolving barriers they face.
Cabezas says the team in Scarborough Village is increasingly helping students with more immediate needs, such as mental health supports and food insecurity.
“If you don’t deal with that now, there is no graduation,” she said. “Our goal is to battle poverty through education. And in order for them to graduate, we need to address whatever their needs might be.”
For newcomer youth, this support also includes helping students’ parents navigate the Canadian education system, said Hinds.
“A lot of our task is about how we work alongside a family to help them ultimately achieve the goals and the dreams that they have for themselves.”