Program Pathways

Preparing Students for Their Working Futures



Carlos Sousa, co-ordinator of the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program with the Toronto Catholic District School Board


by Leanne Miller

What's the most common destination for high school graduates?

If you said college or university, then you're not alone, but you are incorrect. Only about half of our students attend college or university after graduation; the other half go straight to work, either with or without a diploma or certificate.

Though the workplace has never been considered the preferred destination for most students - not by parents, educators or students themselves - we may be seeing a paradigm shift. Society may be starting to value the workplace as a legitimate post-secondary destination, and more importantly, business and education are increasingly working together to thoroughly prepare students for workplace destinations.

In 2002 the Ministry of Education looked at the Grade 10 literacy test results and escalating drop-out rates, and requested an action report on students at risk. Barry O'Connor, Director of the Limestone board, was commissioned to chair an at-risk working group. The report (see concluded that approximately 25 per cent of secondary school students were at risk of not graduating and set out a list of recommendations.

The ministry established three expert panels to work on behalf of the province's English and French-language schools to examine literacy, numeracy and Program Pathways. The literacy group submitted its report and action plan in October 2003. (See Ensuring Literacy, Professionally Speaking, December 2003.)

The numeracy report is expected this spring. The third panel assessed "the pathways followed by students at risk as they progress through their schooling and take their first steps in beginning a career."

The report of the third panel, Building Pathways to Success, calls for a dramatic reculturing of both the education system's and society's perceptions of the purpose and ultimate goals of education. It stresses that educators, students and parents must consider the workplace as a realistic, rewarding and important post-secondary destination for students.

The report explains that Program Pathways refer to the combination of courses and supports making up students' educational programs as well as the underlying purpose of course choices. It recommends that in choosing programs students balance personal dreams with realistic assessments of their skills, interests and values.

This process of self-assessment should begin in elementary school, with regular re-evaluation and program adjustments as students mature. It also recommends that programs provide the necessary flexibility to accommodate such changes.

Significant findings
In 2002 the ministry commissioned Alan King of Queen's University's faculty of education to study Ontario's double cohort; King's research has guided the work of all three expert panels, including the group for Program Pathways.

King's survey of Grade 10 students found that:

  • sixty-five per cent taking applied courses failed to acquire 16 credits by the end of Grade 10
  • over 75 per cent were taking either academic courses or a combination of academic and applied courses
  • nearly 80 per cent planned to attend university or college, and only about 9 per cent saw the workplace or apprenticeship as their immediate destination. But the reality is that about 50 per cent of students will attend university or college, while the remaining half will enter the workforce, either with or without a diploma.

King concluded that "for many students there is a significant mismatch between their expectations of what their education will lead to and what they actually end up doing, and this mismatch is reflected in students' course selections.

If students aim for destinations and select courses that are not compatible with the knowledge, skills and interests they possess, they are not positioning themselves for success. Where this occurs one might conclude that it is the nature of the education program, not the level of student ability, that is creating the risk."

A Toronto District School Board survey confirmed King's statistics, showing that about 20 per cent of students are considered at risk because they leave school before they graduate, while 50 per cent graduate and enter the workforce and 30 per cent attend college or university.

Bernadette Shaw, vice-principal of Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in Toronto, says that in response to the board's data, "we have identified Program Pathways as a priority for our school."

Changing perceptions
David Armstrong, chair of the Program Pathways expert panel and director of the Bluewater district, highlights the key challenge of the report. "We must change perceptions about work not being a legitimate destination for students after completing high school," says Armstrong.

The popular idea that formal post-secondary education is the most desirable outcome does not reflect the reality of a majority of our students' interests, abilities and choices. He points out that "program pathways chosen by students at risk and the careers open to them must be recognized as being of equal value to those of other students."

The report concludes that we must rethink what it means to support students at risk. "They need program pathways that are aligned with their strengths and learning styles rather than those where they struggle to keep up with their peers. Students (and parents) must see their courses as viable and credible, enabling them to achieve educational goals that fit with their life goals, not as something they must do because they are failing to make the grade."

Reculturing education
The theory sounds good but the reality is that changing ingrained beliefs can be daunting. Since the report was released educators have been rethinking what it means to be a teacher and part of a school community.

Teachers at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in Toronto attend workshop led by Carlos Sousa and Tish Amico

To get the ball rolling Carlos Sousa - one of the panel members and co-ordinator of the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program with the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) - along with TCDSB colleague Tish Amico, led a workshop at Marc Garneau Collegiate in November. The workshop focused on ways to elevate the workplace as a credible post-secondary option and to encourage inclusivity and sensitivity regarding students and their destinations.

Sousa and Amico provided some compelling examples of how educators can unintentionally reinforce incorrect and damaging notions about the hierarchy of destinations. They looked at various schools' June newsletters, which listed students accepted to colleges and universities but failed to list students who had secured jobs upon graduation.

They also drew attention to student--services departments, where shelves are lined with information on post-secondary educational institutions but contain little if any information on apprenticeships and other workplace options.

The presenters concluded that schools unintentionally saturate students with the message that college and university are the destinations of choice, yet the ironic reality is that the minority of our students pursue post-secondary education upon graduation.

Reculturing business
Changing attitudes, beliefs and values also need to take place with education's business partners. And thanks to other education changes, some shifts have already begun.

David Armstrong comments, "It used to be that academically oriented students mainly took
co-operative education. Now, because they have only four years to complete their studies, many don't have time. Instead, more students at risk and those studying at the applied level are taking co-op, and employers are realizing this gives them an excellent opportunity."

"These kids want to explore jobs because many will start working right after high school, and some employers are getting involved in helping prepare and support them for the school-to-work transition."

Armstrong points to society's aging demographic as another factor that will help this initiative succeed. "Vast numbers of skilled workers, such as those in vital and booming industries like construction, are approaching retirement. Many progressive businesses and unions have a genuine interest in being involved in school-to-work program pathways to help them get the best possible replacement workforce. Meaningful industry/education partnerships can prepare students for work and help us ensure that both classroom activities and work experiences are realistic and purposeful."

Dudley Briggs, a senior construction-industry consultant, comments that for this model to work, stakeholders' interests must be addressed. He points out that "provincial employment standards, workplace health and safety issues, union jurisdictions, liability insurance, accountability for accidents and the need for higher standards of supervision for student work must all be considered."

There is also an issue of who trains the students. In co-op programs students are joining the workforce while studying. This means that workforce personnel will be involved in their training. Clearly, then, the ability of these tradespeople to teach must be addressed."

In the classroom
According to Sousa teams of teachers throughout the province are developing school-to-work program pathways to meet curriculum, assessment and evaluation expectations and to facilitate seamless school-to-work transitions.

Educators are also working with business and community partners to develop activities that will teach and test the skills and knowledge students will need to be successful in the workplace. Special attention is being placed on industries that students can enter directly from high school, including tourism, hospitality, food service, personal care (esthetician, hair stylist), printing, construction and auto service.

Programs are enabling students to earn industry-recognized certification in areas related to workplace destinations. For example, while still in high school, students interested in hospitality can earn certificates that enhance their chances of securing employment; examples include Smart Serve (responsible sale and service of alcohol), Heartsaver first aid and WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System).

Students in Bluewater District School Board participate in the Kincardine masonry program

A new school-to-work program pathway was launched this year in the Bluewater district. In Kincardine, students at risk, many with histories of poor attendance and low interest in school, have been enthusiastically attending a masonry program supported by a local business and taught by a teacher who is a trained mason.

According to Armstrong, "It's the first time that many of these students have been turned on by school, and at the same time they are learning skills they will use when they enter the workforce next year."

Armstrong looks forward to the day when skilled tradespeople and educators will work side-by-side, both in the classroom and at the job site, to prepare students for workplace destinations.

"We need to get away from our parochial thinking that only teachers should be teaching our students - that's not true any more."

A promising outlook
Armstrong explains why he is both excited and confident that this initiative will succeed. What's different is the sense of urgency, in both education and business. "While as many as 30 per cent of high school students are at risk of not graduating, at the same time, businesses that do not require post-secondary qualifications need workers. If educators can work with businesses in shaping the skills and knowledge their students will gain, then so much the better."

Sousa comments that there are many challenges in shifting the culture. Rethinking what it means to be an educator and redefining student success are two. "Nevertheless, I'm convinced that educators will respond with enthusiasm and passion," he says. "We must go beyond our traditionally closed and academically focused walls."

Time will tell if the paradigm will truly shift, but the good will, the creativity and the desire to make meaningful changes are present, and that's a tremendous starting point.