Good public policy starts with people.
At Hamilton Community Foundation, we’re working to change educational outcomes for students who are at risk of not completing high school through an initiative called ABACUS. It means changing how we think about the way we provide education and support for students; it entails careful, thoughtful implementation to ensure we’re solving the right problems in the best way. It’s evidence-based and data-driven as public policy should be.
But most important, ABACUS focuses on people – kids in Grads 6, 7 and 8. It’s about helping them to build, articulate and follow through on aspirations and expectations — facets of their lives that matter very much because they’re a signal of self-confidence, self-esteem, academic achievement, optimism and a growth mindset.
One component of ABACUS is called Grad Track. It’s a pilot project to deliver more intense programming to a small group of students who face multiple barriers and who are disengaging from school. ABACUS encourages student success through a “learning coach,” parental supports and incentives for both small and big achievements. The goal is to help these students break out of the status quo, and achieve a significantly higher rate of high school completion and post-secondary education.
Although the Grad Track students today have only entered Grade 6, a learning coach will be working with them to start thinking about – and planning for – their lives after high school. The coach will work with the students to identify their interests and goals and connect them with people and programs in the community doing similar things. The Grad Track approach is not to re-invent existing community programs, but rather to tie them together and ensure students are matched with the resources they need.
Each student will be an active partner in putting together a tailored system of programming and support that fits his or her individual strengths and needs. That framework of support includes academic mentorship, peer-to-peer support, goal setting, and incentives for completion. It includes academic tools for learning and completing assignments, one-on-one support, group team building, help in deciding an educational path, family engagement and support, and special assistance to get through important milestones.But Grad Track will also focus on the barriers that get in the way of high school completion. Sometimes those barriers are financial and can be as simple as providing funding for tutoring, bus passes, or simply lunch money. Just as often, the barriers that create disengagement are non-financial. Grad Track aims to teach kids to believe in themselves and their potential. They’ll learn how to apply themselves and work through the challenges in their lives, and to set higher goals for their own accomplishments.
One public school and one Catholic school Hillcrest and St. Patrick respectively will host Grad Track, each with 15-20 Grade 6 students. Grad Track will follow and support them throughout middle school, through to the critical transition to Grade 9, and will ultimately provide financial support for post-secondary education: college, university or the trades. Both host schools were selected by their boards not just because they have a cohort of students who fit the Grad Track profile, but also because they have supportive, enthusiastic principals and staff to partner with us.
Grad Track will use an iterative process: evaluate carefully and course-correct quickly. The goal is to be nimble and flexible to apply – and share broadly – what works for students, their engagement, and their learning. Ultimately, we want to evolve the whole community of support to make high school graduation and post-secondary education a more likely outcome for students who are currently struggling against the social, economic and institutional barriers that keep too many of our children from achieving their potential.
This will be the first year for Grad Track in Hamilton, but it won’t be the last. Long-term change takes time and I’m proud that ABACUS represents at least a 10-year commitment for Hamilton Community Foundation. It is one of the most definitive aspects of HCF that, as an endowment-based organization, our donors have given us the ability to affect long-term change along with their time, patience, and belief in what’s possible.