In an era when an education is key for most good jobs, one group of Ontario students is getting left behind

By Wendy Harris

Being a Crown ward in Ontario isn’t supposed to be a punishment. Rather, the system offers abused or troubled children – or children with extreme medical conditions – protection by society, a safe home (usually in foster care) and the possibility of a fresh start. And yet the majority of Crown wards fail to acquire even a high school education.

It’s not a small problem. Currently, there are 18,000 Crown wards in Ontario. Some 8,700 of them will be in the care of the province until they turn 19, while 9,300 are temporary wards who may return to their families at some point. As many of these kids move from foster home to foster home and from school to school, the continuum of their education is fractured. And because of that (among other issues), they are three times more likely to drop out of high school than other students.

These grim statistics have not gone unnoticed by the provincial ministries and by Ontario’s 53 children’s aid societies. In fact, improving the education outcomes for Crown wards – and in turn their lifelong employment opportunities – is part of the Ontario government’s long-term strategy for reducing poverty in the province.

We are the substitute parents

As Director of Child and Youth Services at the Durham Children’s Aid Society, Brad Bain has been aware of the problem for some time. A few years ago he took a hard look at the number of kids in the care of his organization who were not graduating from high school and, not surprisingly, discovered that too many of them were falling through gaping cracks in the education system. It could be difficult, for instance, to enrol them in school after they’d been moved to a new district, and there were also more complex problems, like finding the resources to address their multiple behavioural and emotional needs. It’s at odds with the overarching mandate of the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) and a situation that few parents would tolerate. “We are the substitute parents,” says Bain.

These kids have already gone through hell. They do not present as the warm and cuddly ones.

Although CAS workers are actively engaged with teachers and testing and schools – as most parents would be – they often find themselves thwarted by any number of obstacles. They can’t get the resources they need or the testing and classroom supports that are required, and it’s difficult to get any of the myriad education needs of their young charges addressed.

“Our kids do not do as well academically as the general population,” Bain says. In fact, based on an analysis done about three years ago, 82 per cent of the 875 kids in care in Durham (470 of whom are permanent wards of the Crown) had special needs, almost half had behavioural problems and 40 per cent risked not being promoted to the next grade. “They are disadvantaged to begin with. They bring behavioural issues, mental-health issues. Schools are very quick to suspend our kids.”

Bain says that his agency is always bending over backwards to get resources in place so the kids can succeed – resources like testing for learning disabilities or psycho-educational assessments or reliable transportation or education assistants in the classroom.

“We were told that we would have to fund our own education assistants. If it were my son or daughter, they would never have the right to do that.”

About five years ago, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services set a goal that every child in the care of the province’s children’s aid societies should achieve a secondary school education. In 2009 the Ministry of Education was brought on board and the initiative became part of the Student Success Strategy, with a target of 85 per cent graduation for the spring of 2011. Bain’s response to that initiative, along with the clear needs of the Crown wards in the care of his agency, was to hire someone who knew the education system inside and out and who could advocate on behalf of his young charges.

“We needed someone who could walk the talk,” he says. “We needed someone who could level the playing field.”

That someone was Ron Tansley, OCT, a 39-year veteran of the school system in Ontario, who spent the last 10 years of that stretch as a high school principal in the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB. He was hired by the Durham CAS as a part-time education consultant in February 2009. “Ron brings credibility to the table right off the bat,” says Bain.


Ron Tansley, OCT, interacts directly with kids in care, either by administering tests they need or through personal counselling.

Besides his advocacy work with local schools on behalf of students, Tansley also interacts directly with the kids in care, either by administering the tests they require (mostly the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test, which measures reading, math and spelling) or through personal counselling. Tansley holds no illusions about who his kids are or what they have been through before arriving at the doors of the Children’s Aid Society.

“These kids have already gone through hell. Do you think the kids who have endured emotional and physical harm might be messed up?” he asks rhetorically. “They do not present as the warm and cuddly ones.”

They are so pleased to show you what they can do. They just need someone to sit down and take the time.

Working with Durham’s Crown wards, Tansley faces challenges every day that are common to the growing number of CAS education consultants in the province. Twelve of Ontario’s 53 children’s aid societies now have education consultants on staff. Flipping through a thick sheaf of papers chronicling the despair and failure of so many kids in care, he recounts a litany of troubles, along with a few notes of hope. He tells of children who, after being forced to leave their families for any number of reasons, are moved from foster home to foster home and from one school to the next.

Transitions are tough for all children but particularly so for these ones, who are often rendered disruptive, unsettled and unstable. Some end up in Section 23 classrooms – separate classrooms for students with a range of social, emotional and behavioural challenges often coupled with learning disabilities – while others drop out for a time.

Early intervention

Tansley says a large part of his job is to create opportunities for success for the students, to create the learning platforms they need so they can thrive. That usually means getting them assessed and putting an independent learning program in place. After that it might also mean seeking out the funding for an education assistant or a tutor – or both. The key, he says, is early intervention, preferably when children are in the primary grades, because those are the years when their destinies can really be changed. By the time they are in high school, it is much more difficult to effectively intervene.

“The real difficulty is how do you get these kids to buy into a secondary education,” says Tansley. “So many of them haven’t learned at all how to integrate into school. They don’t learn well; they don’t seem to belong anywhere; they can’t function in the mainstream. They are our highest risk.”

In the wake of the relative success of Tansley’s initiatives and the recognition that early intervention is key, Norma Yeomanson, a former Durham elementary school principal, was hired in early 2011 as a part-time education consultant to focus on the primary grades. It is at that early stage in a child’s development that real transformation can happen, she says.

Why? Many children need tutoring help and support even before they enter kindergarten because their early childhood experiences have not given them the foundation they need to begin more rigorous learning. In addition, she says, they may lack the social skills or behavioural discipline to function in kindergarten or in the primary environment.

And that is where she, along with principals, teachers and CAS workers, can get involved in finding the supports the children need. Once they are in the older primary, junior or intermediate grades, says Yeomanson, she can assess their academic performance and recommend a course of action.


Norma Yeomanson, OCT, a former Durham elementary school principal, knows that early intervention is key for helping kids succeed.

Adequate support

Lynn Gittens, OCT, is the head of Special Education for Grove School, a Section 23 facility regulated by the safe schools portion of the Education Act. The school serves the education needs of about 400 K-12 students who can’t attend a community school within the Durham DSB because of placement in care, treatment, custody or correctional facilities. Gittens says that Tansley’s presence as an education consultant at the CAS extends a child’s support network and offers her another angle from which to view that child as a student.

In addition to the testing that he does, Tansley attends transition meetings as students prepare to leave Grove School and troubleshoots what might lie ahead. With his awareness of what supports might realistically be available, he can help navigate possible barriers, which leaves Gittens free to focus on all the positive attributes a student presents.

In her role as a tutor who often works with CAS wards, Gittens is able to focus on the academic specifics each  child needs. And because of her one-on-one intervention, she has watched students move two grade levels in math or French during the course of just a couple of weeks. “They are so pleased to show me what they can do,” she says. “They just need someone to sit down and take the time.”


Because of her one-on-one work with CAS wards, Lynn Gittens, OCT, has seen kids move two grade levels in math within weeks.

Carolyn Treadgold, OCT, Supervising Principal for Special Education at the Durham DSB, echoes her colleague’s views, adding that Tansley offers a tangible centralized contact, not to mention a real advocate, for her students. “It’s important that they have a voice, someone who will speak for them,” she says.

As chief social worker for the Durham DSB, Georgia Jenkins approaches problems from a perspective other than the strictly academic. She says that while social workers know what their children need, they don’t necessarily have the experience to get it for them. Tansley shows them how. “He knows how to work within the system,” she says.

Like all systems, whether health or justice or hospitals, the education system is “quirky,” and to effectively navigate it, you need a knowledgeable guide. Jenkins says that unlike so many of the extreme emotional or psychological issues that some of the kids are grappling with, their schooling is something that social workers and teachers can really take on. “It’s important for kids to feel competent and successful,” Jenkins says. “Education is a huge opportunity to learn social skills that affect their self-esteem and confidence.”

Michelle Titterton is a child and youth supervisor for seven staff members at the Durham CAS. Of course, children’s safety is paramount in the work she does, but almost equally important is their schooling.

Some are from such a poverty-stricken background that they haven't had their eyes opened to the importance of education.

“Education is the piece of the puzzle that is so important if they are going to have a future,” she says. “Some are from a such a poverty-stricken background that they haven’t had their eyes opened to it.”

Titterton echoes the long list of problems and needs that the children bring with them. Some are substance abusers, some chronically skip school, some have been involved in the criminal justice system and many are moved back and forth between their family homes and foster homes or from one foster home to another.

“They don’t have shiny pasts,” is the polite way she expresses it. “They need a chance.”

Teachers are important

At its simplest, that chance can take the form of being seen as a normal kid on arriving in a new classroom. But once they’re in the classroom they need a host of education supports, and that is where teachers play a huge role.

Titterton tells the story of a 10-year-old boy whose male teacher wanted to spend time with him after school, just to talk to him and help him with his homework. She suggests that even that kind of simple involvement can make a huge difference in the life of a young person.

Tansley agrees, but takes it a step farther. He says that teachers need to exercise extra patience with these kids, especially when they act out and make it difficult to like them. He pleads with teachers for understanding, saying that Crown wards have unique and painful stories that contribute to whatever they manifest in a classroom.

Rachel is an 18-year-old Crown ward who came into care just over two years ago. She used to be in a Section 23 classroom but has just completed her Grade 12 education in Durham. That success is partly because of a few teachers. The first gave her some Plasticene when she was seven or eight years old and launched her on a lifelong passion for art, initiating her interest in pursuing art therapy. Rachel also remembers a math teacher who made multiplication tables fun by setting up competitions where everyone could emerge a winner as long as they tried hard. And there was a high school art teacher who inspired her, not only because of what he brought to the study of art but because he showed his students respect.

“He treated me like a person.”

Rachel had a chance because teachers got past her difficult history and saw her as a whole person.

But that can be a thorny issue. Dianna Knight, OCT, a math teacher at Sandalwood Heights SS in Brampton, says that she usually knows nothing about a student’s background until something erupts in her classroom or the student starts missing a lot of school. But on discovering that a student is in the care of the CAS, Knight has, on occasion, been unable to contact anyone who is even nominally in charge.

Kids want to fit in at their new schools and not carry around the stigma of their pasts. At the same time, teachers still need appropriate information about their students, and they need to know that there’s a support system behind these kids – that someone is watching out for them. The Durham CAS, as well as a growing number of boards across the province, have people who very specifically fill the needed roles – people like Tansley and Yeomanson, who make a very real difference for the teachers as well as the students.