As we pulled up in front of the college campus, I could sense that my student, Sam*, was both nervous and filled with anticipation. I was excited, too. This was a day we had been co-planning for some time: a personalized day at a college campus of his choice. Today was designed for exploration, information gathering and active planning for life after high school.
Unlike a generic campus tour, this experience was geared toward post-secondary education (PSE) options specific to Sam’s interests and needs. This particular itinerary promised purposeful conversations and interactions with the right people at the right time. My hope was that Sam would not only get valuable information and a “taste” of college life, but that he would realize that he had full permission to dream and plan for his future and to feel hope about his pathway after high school.
Sam had not had an easy time of high school, having faced many barriers and personal challenges, and was considered a student at risk. In our initial meetings, talks of PSE had been met with shoulder shrugs and apathy, and he had indicated that he had no plans or goals after high school.
As we walked around the campus that day – visiting programs, observing classrooms, conversing with staff and accessing supports – it was not lost on me that this was the first time that Sam (or anyone in his immediate family) had stepped onto a college campus or had directly engaged with PSE planning. It had taken time, work and some trust-building to get Sam to the college that day, but the doors that were about to open for him made it worth it.
Working with the Ontario government to support PSE transitions
This scenario captures aspects of the work that I was doing with Ensuring Equitable Access to Postsecondary Education Strategy (Access to PSE Strategy) during the last school year. I am a secondary school teacher with the Halton District School Board (HDSB) and I was in the role of Access to PSE Strategy Project Lead, leading a 2017/18 pilot project.
The funding for this project was by application and in response to a “Call for Proposals” from the Ontario Ministry of Education in the spring of 2017. The purpose of the funding was to support at-risk students with transitions to PSE and to see the value of and opportunities in PSE pathways. To support PSE transitions, funding for the project was aimed at eliminating non-financial barriers to PSE, such as (but not limited to) exclusion from PSE pathway planning, limited academic preparation and lack of supports.
HDSB’s pilot project was aimed at ensuring equity of opportunity for PSE specific to students in locally developed programming or alternative education, and who were deemed at risk of not graduating high school and/or not having a PSE plan after high school (e.g. students with low credit accumulation and/or students achieving below the provincial standard) . Access to PSE work operated on three key components: a) direct service to students, b) community partnerships, and c) regional programs and experiential learning with a career and reach-ahead focus. For PSE transitions and planning, the focus of the project was to provide opportunities and interventions – navigational coaching and wraparound supports – to our students most in need.
Ensuring equitable access to post-secondary education strategy
The Access to PSE Strategy was born out of recommendations from The Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel Report: Building the Workforce of Tomorrow: A Shared Responsibility, made available in June 2016. In the spring of 2017, school boards were invited to apply for funding for pilot projects that aligned with the Access to PSE strategy and the bolstering of its practices. Key drivers of this work included equity, well-being, career/life planning, and ultimately, youth prosperity and preparedness for the future workforce. The Access to PSE Strategy works in tandem with Creating Pathways to Success (CPS), the province’s Education and Career/Life Planning program. The micro-sphere of Access to PSE is to coach and support at-risk students and their families in developing personalized PSE plans. The macro-level focuses on building systemic practices to support youth prosperity and equity for all students. Considering the micro- and macro-levels, the implications of this work are broad and hold potential to fuel the dreams of our youth while also strengthening the province’s skilled workforce.
Where do we go from here?
Unfortunately, our Access to PSE proposal was not renewed this school year (2018-2019) and funding was discontinued under the new provincial government. The work feels unfinished. As we had just started building momentum, this was not the news that we had been hoping for. The HDSB believes in the importance and implications of this work, and so now, we are looking to the future and considering how to continue this work in our schools and with our students.
The challenge before us is two-fold: to continue the key components of the Access to PSE project while not losing sight of the depth and roots of the work. The work is rooted in equity, extending to reflective practice and the unpacking of biases. Equity-work is where the “heavy lifting” takes place and is where the deeper meaning and legacy of this strategy lies. It forces us to look at relationships between at-risk students and PSE opportunities and moves us to ask tough questions about the equity of decisions. It pushes us to consider potential biases in transition planning and to shine light into the corners of our teaching practice. It’s uncomfortable yet necessary work that takes time, commitment and courage.
Regardless of funding, we are committed to the work necessary for fair access to PSE opportunities for all students and the moral imperatives that drive the Access to PSE Strategy – work that is too important to leave unfinished.
*Name changed for privacy reasons