ABACUS: Advancing access to post-secondary education

Putting more young Hamiltonians on the path to post-secondary education – before they even get to high school – is the focus of a new and innovative initiative from Hamilton Community Foundation.Known as ABACUS: Advancing Post-Secondary Access, it focuses on children in the middle-school years (Grades 6-8), a pivotal point when they undergo significant developmental changes while also needing to make academic decisions that strongly shape their future.urbanicity was introduced to this exciting initiative by President and CEO Terry Cooke and Vice-President, Community Relations Grace Diffey and wanted to explore it further in the pages of urbanicity over the next year. We will be talking with the people directly involved in ABACUS and sharing the story of this life-changing project every quarter.For this inaugural piece, we sat down with David Hansen; Director of Education for the Hamilton Wentworth Catholic District School Board, as well as Manny Figueiredo; Director of Education for the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board to talk about the value ABACUS will bring to the school boards and the effect it will have on students in our city. Further, we sat down with Matt Goodman; Vice President, Grants & Community Initiatives as well as Fiona Deller, principal researcher and architect of ABACUS to talk about the background of ABACUS.We encourage you to follow this series, learn more about how this exciting program will change lives across our city, and perhaps discover ways you can get involved and part of this life-changing project.

You spent three years researching for this project, following a decade of collaborative work to reduce poverty, what did that include, and how did that prepare the foundation to roll out ABACUS?
MATT GOODMAN: The story starts before the research piece. It really stems from the 10 years of work in neighbourhoods, the poverty focus we had. One of the key elements we had was trusting and relying on the residents to share their experiences with us. Personal safety and security, job creation, and education would be the three things we would hear most often in these neighbourhoods. What underpins the great work that Fiona and our researchers did was this recognition from residents that education was a key pathway out of poverty. They knew it, they recognized it, and they wondered why there were challenges in their schools, challenges in their neighbourhoods with regards to grades and high school completion. That was the starting point for us, a pathway out of poverty. Our board started to prioritize things, the connection back to the residents, the appropriate- ness of education as a key determinant of one’s future success. Now, we need to figure out what that means. Education is huge. What is appropriate in this community and right for HCF. That’s when we came to know Fiona. Fiona, in conjunction with Jeff Wingard and Kate Feightner, our other lead researchers did the bulk of the exploration into what’s possible, what’s working in other communities, what’s working in our community and we merged that together.

FIONA DELLER: My background is access to post secondary, and particularly, early intervention programs. Early intervention programs are those programs that help at risk students graduate from high school and get into post secondary institutions. The definition of “at risk students” can change depending on the community. Often, what we mean is low-income students, and first generation students.
What I’m particularly interested in, and what I’m working with the foundation on is what type of programs actually work in helping students, particularly at risk students get through high school and into post-secondary. That was the starting point; what would a program look like that did this? Particularly, what would a program, specific to the Ham- ilton community look like? The way to think about early intervention programs is by explaining that students from middle and upper middle class backgrounds, tend to be enrolled in a program, from birth, of academic success. If you ask these students about their post-secondary expectations, usually they will say “Of course I’m going” They may not know where or when, but they are definitely going. The idea of an early intervention program is to replicate that successful academic pathway through high school and into post-secondary.
What is fantastic about this project was figuring out how to take that theory of success and applying it an actual community situation.

Hamilton Community Foundation identified key factors that influence a child’s likelihood to go on to post-secondary education through their three years of research. These include parental education, financial, academic achievement/preparedness, information and support, peer group influence and self-confidence/self-esteem. How do you see some of those factors playing out in schools?
DAVID HANSEN: The key factors identified by the HCF really do speak to the complexity of understanding why many students can successfully navigate schooling, graduate from high school, and go on to participate in post-secondary opportunities, and yet there remains a percentage of students for whom success does not come easily.
For these students, it is rarely as simple as one of the key factors being “off track;” rather it is almost always a combination of issues. Poor academic achievement can often nega- tively impact a student’s perception of “self” and a cycle of disengaging from school (i.e., as achievement continues to go down, self-confidence continues to erode) begins. If you couple this increasing disengagement from academics with a family that has little to no experience with education beyond high school and little financial means to support participation in post-secondary, you certainly start to see a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Socio-economic challenges and parents who have not participated in post-secondary education are rarely key factors that impact a child’s future success. In fact there are many instances of students who proudly say they are the first of their family to go to university or college or graduate high school. Similarly many families can overcome (sometimes with assistance) financial challenges and provide opportunities for their children beyond high school. However when you see academic achievement and self-esteem start to slide,  a peer group that does not value formal education and the factors of family and money come together, you can see that quite a barrier to participation in post-secondary has been created.

MANNY FIGUEIREDO: This is about transformed learning opportunities – the expansion of opportunities our students can access and the development of the relationships they will find thanks to partnerships. Both of these will add to the assets that every student brings to school every day.
As a board, supporting student transitions from elementary to secondary school has been a priority. We know that during this time students and parents have questions. Schools provide opportunities for visits, shadowing and mentoring. ABACUS will supplement and enhance that work.
As a board, we have also looked deeply at how we deliver programs in our secondary schools to give all students voice and choice in their learning. Every school supports and values every post-secondary pathway including apprenticeship, college, community, university or work.
We want all students to find what they need. To do this, we have balanced enrolment across schools with a more even distribution of specialties across the system; we have changed boundaries to encourage socio-economic diversity; and we listened intently to our students so that we offer programs that engage students to graduation and beyond.

ABACUS focuses on early intervention, so therefore students in Grades 6-8. Explain the rationale behind that, and why those grades were chosen?
FIONA DELLER: The results of the research about early intervention programs show that the earlier you start with a student, the better. Youth tend to select out of a pathway to post secondary at different stages throughout their life. They may imagine they can’t afford it, it’s not for them, that they aren’t academically successful enough, they don’t see themselves there, their peers there. Those sorts of thoughts start relatively early in life. The research suggests to learn as early as possible. Logistically, that creates some problems. Our research team, with Kate and Jeff, started exploring what already existed in the community. It appeared that there was a fairly strong early years set of supports, as well as a fairly strong high school set of supports. Where there was a gap, seemed to be in grades 6-8, when students are making a lot of transitions. They are transitioning in grade 9, into adolescence, into an awareness of long-term future planning. It seemed like a really good time and opportunity to apply some supports.

How will the support of ABACUS work to alleviate them?
While a component of the ABACUS initiative looks to drive systemic change, a real strength of the initiative is the focus on supporting four targeted interventions that speak directly to those students who have begun this cycle of disengagement with school. By focusing at the most elemental level (i.e., the student), working with schools and teachers to identify these sub-populations of students who have started to disengage, and supporting those things that schools would be challenged to support (either because of lack of funding, lack of personnel, or lack of expertise etc. ) there is a precision to the intended intervention that sometimes gets missed in other initiatives if the goal and interventions are more broadly defined or try to impact larger groups of students.
In my experience some of the very best innovations and interventions in education have come from grassroots programs that get replicated in other settings as success is realized. The four pillars of intervention identified in ABACUS look to find these successful interventions while remaining focused on those children who need the intervention the most. This combination of community and school collaboration really is exciting and can only develop innovative practices that will eventually impact the broader system.

MANNY FIGUEIREDO: As mentioned above, ABACUS will help transform the opportunities and relationships our students access by bringing community expertise inside the classroom. This will open our students’ eyes to new futures, thanks to new experiences and new mentors. Work like this can be seen on different levels, similar to the work we are continuing in our Transforming Learning Everywhere initiative. Some characterized TLE as just a one-to-one mobile technology project, because we are providing tablets to many students and staff to accelerate learning. But we always considered it to be much more – one ingredient that is helping us transform classrooms, relationships and learning opportunities for our students.

What is the value and importance that Hamilton Community Foundation’s ABACUS initiative brings to the school boards?
DAVID HANSEN: Achieving an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) has really become firmly entrenched (with increasingly fewer exceptions) as a “bare-minimum” standard for employment in Ontario. Since we know that a failure to achieve an OSSD shuts down access to post-secondary education, we also know that in the absence of some sort of post-secondary training, be it apprenticeship, college or university, job opportunities get narrower and narrower and as a result life opportunities start to narrow as well. The HCF ABACUS initiative brings community support to school boards, schools and students in three important ways: i) it provides support for interventions that wouldn’t traditionally be funded by the Ministry of Education; ii) it brings the broader community and schools together in an important collaboration – these are the children of Hamilton and if some of “our” children are experiencing less success than others, then it is incumbent on us to find creative and innovative ways to try and have all of “our” children on the kind of school and life trajectory we would expect; iii) it targets students at a time when the seeds of disengagement from school are just beginning to take root (Grade 6-10).

MANNY FIGUEIREDO: The initiative has tremendous value for our school board and wider community; it will help students find post-secondary pathways that achieve their goals. Education is most effective when it goes beyond the classroom and draws on the expertise in our community. ABACUS will transform the opportunities that our students can access.
The generous funding flowing to our partners means that we can benefit from more than a dozen community agencies that will have a positive impact on the students in 24 HWDSB schools. An open and collaborative relationship with the HCF will ensure that this work is co-ordinated, as effective as possible and integrated with existing school life.
For example, initiatives such as the math success program led by the Neighbour-to- Neighbour Centre will use the Jump Math program that fits with and augments the great work happening in our math classes. And we are thrilled to consider the possibilities when we look at the great list of agencies being funded – they will bring programs to our schools focused on newcomer youth, the arts, computer coding, Aboriginal youth and so much more.

What excites you the most about ABACUS?
DAVID HANSEN: There is much to be excited about ABACUS as this continues to roll out but I think the real excitement will be when we start to get the initial reports from the projects, and visit the schools, the principals and the students. As we move from the theory of the ABACUS initiative (which is obviously foundationally and fundamentally strongly conceived and executed) to the application with real students in real settings, we will see ABACUS come to life.
The real story about ABACUS is likely being written right now by those carrying out the different ABACUS funded projects. I think that’s where the real excitement will be.
I commend the HCF for the work they do in the city of Hamilton and particularly for the great partners they have been to those of us in the education sector for so many years and I look forward to our journey together in learning from ABACUS.

MANNY FIGUEIREDO: We are most excited about ABACUS because it is a significant, sustained and collaborative investment in the future of our students and wider community. It is based in research, employs best practices and allows local flexibility.
It’s exciting that ABACUS is expanding and enhancing opportunities and relationships for students as it supports the great work of our partners. These agencies can bring to the table expertise beyond that of a school. This expertise is complementary to the learning experiences in the classroom.
In summary, I also have to say how excited I am about how ABACUS is nurturing and enhancing HWDSB’s collaborative relationship with the Hamilton Community Foundation. We each bring to the table different backgrounds and skills – but because we are open to learning from each other, we can make a much greater impact for all of our students.

One of ABACUS’ goals is looking at system changes to close gaps that get in the way of students’ accessing post-secondary. What do you think that could look like?
DAVID HANSEN: I think an initiative like ABACUS can impact systemic changes in two particular ways. One I referenced earlier, that by finding grassroots projects and interventions of success, one can inform “up” to the system from these projects and a good system will learn, replicate and “creep” these interventions across the system – a kind of “trickle up” theory of system change if you would. Given the breadth and creativity of the projects I have knowledge about I think, we are going to have much to learn, much to observe and much to think about as we start to see the impact of these projects. I think we, with HCF and our other community partners, will move relatively quickly from a “proof of concept” with some of the ABACUS projects to some very serious discussions about how to extend, perpetuate and sustain the learning from the projects.
The second way I think ABACUS will help to impact system change is actually inherent in the design of ABACUS. I think wisely the HCF has not attempted to be all things to all people but rather has taken a research based analysis that provides focus down to a very specific goal for a very specific population of children. In our own Board, I have seen great success when you take a very large issue – like student achievement – and narrow the question down to how, with finite funds and resources, can we most positively impact the issue? In our case, and very similar to the ABACUS initiative, we
identified those schools most impacted by socio-economic challenges, grouped them together as the Equal Opportunity schools and brought to bear funding and other resources in a more concerted manner to attempt to overcome the negative impacts of the socio-economic setting of the school. We have consistently seen a narrowing of the achievement gap between these schools and other more “affluent” schools as a result of narrowing our focusing and identifying fewer rather than more interventions. I think ABACUS has a very similar approach and I believe that will serve the initiative very well in supporting larger systemic changes.

MANNY FIGUEIREDO: Hamilton Community Foundation knows, as we do, that money alone can’t change a system. It takes a commitment resulting in sustainable action, effective practices and equity for all. System change is about developing innovative experiences which are sustainable and aligned with existing structures.  If we transform student opportunities and relationships, we are helping students have rich, diverse experiences before they make important decisions about their futures.
At an individual level, we hope this initiative helps all students feel supported as learners and as individuals. We want all students to believe that they have unlimited futures. To do this, community experts can provide opportunities and serve as role models in ways that our students may not have encountered otherwise. Exposure to new opportunities will provide students with the necessary foundation to explore, through inquiry, their pathway.  Creativity and flexibility are important for today’s students, who will eventually work in jobs that haven’t yet been invented.

Hamilton Community Foundation is, and has been a leader in innovative initiatives like ABACUS, what is it about our city that sets us apart from others?
MATT GOODMAN: I think part of the answer is a spirit of working together, and collaboration. It underpins a lot of the work that we do in the health and social service sector. I hear from colleagues in other jurisdictions that is not the case. This spirit of working together transcends a lot of different areas. Fiona referenced our Best Start Network. There was federal and provincial money, but there was also a willingness to think about how to allocate those funds in a different way that has been a strong example for other tables to come together; the Roundtable for Poverty Reduction for example. We have this current of something that says we have these big intractable problems, they are complex and require a complex system of working together to tackle them. I think that’s part of what makes Hamilton unique. Related to that, we’re the right size to do that. It’s easy here to pick up the phone and have a real, meaningful relationship with the leaders and decision makers in their organizations and in our communities. The size, coupled with the willingness to take on these things. People talk about the Hamilton spirit, and disproportionate amount of volunteer hours and the giving piece of it. But, I really think it’s the unique relationship that we’ve been able to develop. When new leaders come to our community, they figure out quickly, through modeling this good behavior (like we do with our kids!), how to play in Hamilton and how to be successful. Going back to the research, the piece that Kate and Jeff took on, was to really understand what was going on in the community. Part of that is to test the will of the community on what it is you might be proposing down the road. We wanted to take the pulse of the community, and give them some genuine opportunities to shape and input. That makes a difference. When ABACUS emerges, it’s not from a policy writer’s room, it’s from the community, and I think that really makes a difference. Where this things come from matter. It allows people to feel like they have been part of it from the beginning, which is always better than imposing something.

FIONA DELLER: I’ve never worked as closely with a community as I have with this particular project, so it’s a little different. But, I have been around tables where communities have come together to talk about solutions to different problems. I would definitely say that working in Hamilton has been an incredible breath of fresh air and learning experience for me. It manifests as a community that comes together in a really interesting way, and a community that seems to have an enormous amount of trust and respect for each other, in a way that I really haven’t seen before in larger communities.

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