The Regent Park Education Program That's Turning Heads
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The Regent Park Education Program That’s Turning Heads

Over the past 15 years, the Regent Park–made Pathways to Education has been emulated across Canada, and a new U of T study measures its success.

Julia, volunteer and Giselle, grade 12. Photo courtesy of Pathways-Winnipeg.

Ermias Nagatu grew up in Regent Park and was raised by his single mother, who was chronically sick throughout his childhood. He was a responsible kid, but had no interest in school and never imagined going to university. In grade nine, he started falling behind in school and failed three semesters of English in a row. But soon after seeing a tutor, his results improved, and he doubled his grade in English. By the end of high school, Nagatu identified his social and academic strengths, and was offered an entrance scholarship into a bachelor of science program at York University. Nagatu has held two research jobs in Toronto hospitals during his time at York, and he plans to pursue medicine after his undergrad.

Nagatu’s story follows a common narrative for a graduate of Pathways to Education—a support program for students in low-income communities who are entering high school. The program has significantly improved education outcomes in low-income communities across Canada, and has turned skeptical academics into believers when it comes to the program’s approach and results.

Pathways to Education is a non-profit community-based education program that functions outside of the school system. Co-founded by Carolyn Acker in 2001 as a way to address systemic poverty, crime, and unemployment in Regent Park, Toronto’s oldest housing project, Pathways has since grown to be one of the most successful education projects of its kind in Canada.

Acker was the executive director of Regent Park Community Health Centre before co-founding Pathways, and despite a $4-million boost for the health centre’s community outreach in the mid-’90s, crime and poverty were rising. “In our desire to break the cycle of poverty, we developed a vision that young people growing up in Regent Park today will become the professionals that work here, rather than us coming from the outside in,” says Acker.

When co-founder Norman Rowen began researching ways to achieve this ambitious vision, he discovered that only 44 per cent of Regent Park kids finished high school, and a mere 20 per cent of those graduates enrolled in post-secondary education. “I remember when Norman came to my office to tell me,” says Acker. “I said, ‘Now I know why there’s so much violence—I understand completely.’ Those youth had no hope. They could not see a future for themselves.”

After a year of community consultation, Acker and Rowen developed a model for Pathways that focused on increasing graduation and post-secondary enrollment rates. Students entering high school were given free tutoring, regular counseling and mentorship, and financial supports like TTC tickets, lunch vouchers, and $1000 towards post-secondary education each year they participated in the program. Pathways was instantly successful in Regent Park, and in its third year, nearly 90 per cent of grade nine students registered in the program.

Phililp Oreopoulos, an economics professor at the University of Toronto, learned about Pathways in 2007 after reading a glowing report by the Boston Consulting Group. According to BCG’s 2007 report, Pathways was responsible for shrinking the high school dropout rate in Regent Park from 56 to 10 per cent, and for increasing post-secondary enrolment to 10 per cent above the national average. The report also emphasized a $24.50 return for every dollar invested into the program—a statement that caused investors to perk up. Toronto United Way and the Ontario Government invested $11 and $19 million dollars respectively that year, which helped fund the project’s expansion to Rexdale and Lawrence Heights.

“On the research side of things, that type of a program impact is virtually unheard of,” says Oreopoulos, who was initially skeptical of Pathways’ alleged success—and not just because of its novelty. The BCG report was commissioned by Pathways itself and lead by David Pecaut, a Pathways board member at the time. Aside from obvious conflict of interest concerns, the report was also light on analysis. “It was sort of a slide deck,” says Oreopoulos. “There was no paper to go along with the report, and no access to the data, of course, because it was done through a consulting firm.”

Oreopoulos and his colleagues at the CD Howe Institute began investigating. “Any program that claims to have such a large impact deserves to be looked at closely,” he says. After about two years, Oreopoulos acquired data from the Toronto District School Board, Toronto Community Housing, and Pathways administrators for the three Toronto projects that offered the program.

In their paper released last August, Oreopoulos and colleagues state: “While our estimated effects [of Pathways] are not on the same order of magnitude as those concluded in the BCG study, they are nevertheless impressive.”

They found that more than 85 per cent of high school students in the identified communities voluntarily registered for the program. They also noted a 15 percentage point increase in high school completion, and a 20 percentage point rise in post-secondary enrolment after Pathways was introduced.

Pathways now operates in 17 communities across Canada, serving just under 10,000 students. Over the course of four years, the program costs about $14,000 per student. “Although the program is expensive over the high school years, the financial gain from sending a kid to college is over the course of a lifetime,” says Oreopoulos, pointing out that high school graduates earn 20 per cent more than dropouts, and post-secondary graduates earn 22 per cent more than high school grads throughout their working lives.

“It’s taken me a while,” says Oreopoulos, “but I’ve been convinced that this program is generating a meaningful and impressive impact to students it aims to help.”

At this point, Oreopoulos says it’s hard to identify what exactly is driving Pathways’ success. “I don’t know what would happen if you took away one component,” he says. “It’s a very well-tuned collection of services that ends up providing a lot of individual support that a student wouldn’t otherwise be getting in the public system or any school system.”

According to Acker, the secret to Pathways is simple: “Level the playing field,” she says. “For me, this whole thing was about social justice: low-income kids can do just as well as anyone else if they’re given the supports.”

It’s a simple concept, but it’s taken incredible dedication by Acker and Rowen, and now other Pathways staff, to identify those supports and the best ways to offer them.

“On very little time and budget resources, they’re trying to help these kids any way they can to make sure they succeed,” says Oreopoulos. “They have a lot of cases that aren’t easy to deal with, and they find a way. A lot of it is ad hoc effort to figure out: what can I do to help this student who’s going through this very unique situation?”

That effort pays off. It’s been five years since Nagatu’s Pathways graduation, and today he works as a tutor for the Regent Park program and offers talks to high school students, encouraging them to enrol in college or university. “Looking back now,” he says, “I can see how Pathways pushed me in the right direction and helped me stay motivated.”