Kim Leary glances over at one of her students. He is slowly and methodically passing a soccer ball from one foot to the other. He is a gifted soccer player, so his uncharacteristically sloppy movements reveal something more to the teacher observing him carefully.
“You look less energetic than usual,” Leary says. She asks him what he had for lunch; he smiles silently. She asks him what he had for breakfast; still no answer. She rephrases: “Have you eaten anything today?” He looks up from his soccer ball.
“An apple,” he replies.
Leary turns around and opens the floor-to-ceiling cupboard near her desk. She emerges with enough snacks for him and all the other students nearby. Smiles creep across their faces and one student exclaims: “This is why you’re our favourite teacher, Ms. Leary.”
It’s not unusual for Vancouver teachers to help feed their students. But for Leary, this food exchange is part of a new initiative running out of Britannia Secondary School called the Youth Engagement Program. Leary is the director of this unusual experiment in student motivation.
YEP is an incentive-based program, which started last October giving students money to attend classes and improve their grades: $50 a month if they meet their goals. But the program isn’t just about paying for higher grades; it’s also about addressing social and economic inequities.
Leary says it’s about creating opportunity and support for the kids who really want and need it.
“We really thought about how we could engage kind of the least engaged students in the school,” says Leary. “The idea is just to have them know that there are some people who are really focusing on them – who really know who they are – so they are not invisible in the school.”
Listen: An older sister explains in her own words how she felt invisible in school. Her two younger sisters are in the Youth Engagement Program (1:44)
Britannia Secondary School serves one of Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhoods.
The average family income for Britannia students is just over $33,000. That’s less than half of the provincial average. Many students also face language barriers, with almost half speaking a language other than English as their mother tongue. Over 30 per cent of Grade 10 students at the school are already so far behind that they’re likely not going to graduate in two years with their classmates, according to the Fraser Institute’s interpretation of provincial test results.
Not reaching high-school graduation significantly decreases the opportunities available for these students. In 2010, the unemployment rate for high-school dropouts was 23 per cent. This was almost double the 12-per-cent unemployment rate for graduates.
Leary and her team are hoping to curb dropout rates among these students by providing them with support and an increased opportunity to pass high school.
A model for success
The Youth Engagement Program is modelled after the federally funded Pathways To Education program, which began in Toronto and now operates in 12 low-income communities across eastern Canada.
The Pathways to Education program has helped reduce high-school dropout rates by 70 per cent. Since the program’s inception, there have been three times as many students going on to post-secondary educations.
At Britannia, the program is open to any student who failed one or more classes in the previous year and is willing to commit.
The 15 students who chose to sign up have agreed to go to all their classes, attend a minimum three hours of homework club at least twice a week, and keep regular contact with the YEP teachers.
In return, they get extra help from tutors, hot meals, field trips, personal support, and the chance to earn the coveted $50 per month for meeting their goals.
If they manage to pass all their classes for the year, $500 a year will be set aside for a post-secondary education of their choosing.
The immediate cash gets the students excited. YEP worker Eric Schofield says, “[It’s] obviously an incentive for money in their pockets, which in most cases is very much needed.”
Listen: The students share their experiences about how the program is working for them (1:45) [Audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2013/03/Tbird-radio-cut-2.mp3]
The bandage for a larger issue
Critics say that while incentives get kids to class, there are concerns with this strategy. It’s generated a lot of debate in the U.S., where incentives have been more widely used.
“Incentives actually reduce [students’] motivation over time. Kids will actually stop learning for the sake of learning if you give them any kind of external reward,” says Jennifer Vadeboncoeur, associate professor in UBC’s faculty of education.
But she also understands the need to address the social and economic challenges these students face.
“We have to appreciate the program, for a small number of kids, as a short-term fix. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that it is trying to address a long-term societal problem,” says Vadeboncoeur.
She says it’s the broader education system that needs to be fixed.
“Why as a society aren’t we doing better for teachers and students? There is something about the school system that really pushes them away.”
Looking to the future
There are no guarantees that YEP will see these kids through to graduation. YEP was funded for only one year, most of it from anonymous donor.
Leary is currently in the process of trying to get grants and donations for the second year, enough to carry this group of students through to Grade 12. But so far, she doesn’t have it, so the fate of the program is uncertain for both this group and any future students.
Donor-dependent programs often face long-term support issues. And that uncertainty raises more concerns.
“Once you start giving people external rewards, it is very difficult to stop doing it,” says Vadeboncoeur, “so then they end up just needing them constantly to keep going.”
Leary is optimistic that enough funds can be raised to continue and eventually to expand.
“Ideally one day, looking 10 years from now… there are 100 YEP kids that are involved in this program,” says Leary.
Listen: Students at Britannia’s YEP program are gathered at the Homework Club. It is time to go home, but they don’t want to go (1:20) [Audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2013/03/Tbird-Radio-Edit.mp3]
Midway through the first year, Schofield has already begun to notice the program’s impact on the kids.
“The success … as far as engaging them, absolutely 100 per cent. We want their grades to improve a lot as well as a consequence and that one’s proving to be challenging, but I think the big one is that first step.”