ABACUS: Part 3

Advancing Access to Post-Secondary Education

This is the third piece in a year-long series about ABACUS; the new collaborative initiative of the Hamilton Community Foundation and The Fairmount Foundation. ABACUS focuses on children in Grades 6, 7, and 8, aiming to identify and remove barriers to high school graduation and post-secondary access, including the trades and apprenticeships. The foundation works with Hamilton agencies to deliver programs that support the ABACUS core pillars – academic upskilling, mentoring, goal setting, and incentives – and to expand their reach, collaboration, and integration to better serve the needs of students in these critical middle-school years.

Below, we have highlighted six of the many agencies working with ABACUS to create more opportunities for students in our own city.



How does your program support the goals of ABACUS?
The Hamilton Code Club program takes a multifaceted approach to encourage and engage students in Grades 6-8 in high-priority neighbourhoods. We also encourage girls to access and to obtain post-secondary educational pathways in the Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT) sector. How are we doing this? Through the introduction of simple software programming, career exploration, mentorship, incentives and goal setting in a hands-on, fun, and interactive club format.

The overarching goal of the program is to create a spark of interest in ICT, as we introduce and promote viable careers and educational path- ways to club members.

What are the benefits of code clubs?
Our program supports career exploration, making connections between programming and S.T.E.M. curriculum, and bringing together the broader community to support the success and engagement/re-engagement of students. Our participants have found a safe place where they can interact with like-minded students. They’ve developed 21st-century learning skills. Many kids have had a mentor come into their life who connects, encourages them and helps build their self-confidence for the first time. This program has many different lasting effects on our club participants.

“I have watched kids lacking confidence and motivation shine while coding. One shy boy who gets disengaged in his school work is always excited when the mentor comes in for our weekly session. Coding has been an outlet for his creativity, making him feel successful.”
“I had parents tell me that their kids were interested in coming to school for the club.”


How does your program support the goals of ABACUS?
The goals of ABACUS as summed up in the four-pillar framework is a natural embodiment of Empowerment Squared’s approach to long-term youth academic empowerment and success. Through our School Readiness and Young Scholars Program, we have an in-depth focus on academic upskilling and mentoring to ensure academic success for at-risk, immigrant, and newcomer youth. For instance, many newcomer children and youth are placed in grades far beyond their academic abilities as a result of our age-appropriate school system, thereby creating a near-impossible environment for success among the newcomer youth population. In order to help fill in such major gaps, we conduct one-on-one weekly tutoring for middle school students to meet academic requirements at school, as well as academic literacy and confidence building as a bedrock for access to post-secondary studies.

Goal setting is another strategic outcome of our programming. Through our “Day on Campus” program, middle school students preparing to make major decisions about their academic future are provided access to crucial information about their choices and the corresponding obligations or implications as they enter high school. In other words, students are provided direct support in making choices relevant to high school courses necessary for long-term career goals. Everything from valuable financial information to strategies for success in accessing post-secondary education is covered.

What kinds of benefits will homework circles have on kids?

First and foremost, the goal is to ensure that kids fulfill their dreams of succeeding in school, just like their peers, regardless of the socio-economic and cultural status from Empowerment Squared’s point of view. The benefit for them is the ability to have education as an option for their long-term development, especially when it comes to access to post-secondary education. Even more importantly, the majority of the students who attend Homework Circle identify volunteer tutors and mentors overwhelmingly as the most important part of Homework Circle, even though students also listed time to do homework, snacks, and meeting friends as important. This is a true highlight as the majority of our volunteers are recruited through the McMaster Muslim Students Association, McMaster African Students Association, and the Nu Omega Zeta Female Sorority at McMaster University.

In fact, younger students really appreciate help with the subjects of math and reading, while the older students appreciate the help with math, science, and English.

Overwhelmingly, Homework Circle is seen by students as helpful and beneficial for their learning, for finishing their homework, for connecting with the local community, and for providing supports that they do not receive in schools or from teachers.

Why is the focus on immigrant and newcomer youth so important?

Most students in our target population often faced significant barriers as they related to their inability to meet the academic requirements needed or perform at the academic level expected of them based on their age. For example, many of them come from countries where the school system is based on academic ability and age. Then they are suddenly thrown into a new reality where they are expected to perform at an academic level consistent with their age in our school system. In many cases, that trans- lates into students being placed in grades three to four levels higher than their academic capabilities. As a result, most often drop out due to frustration and the lack of resources to get the help that they desperately need. This is where Empowerment Squared comes in to restore hope and provide the support to ensure students are successful academically in order to access post-secondary studies. Overwhelmingly, youth overcome poverty and excel through academic success and are more connected to their local communities when given the opportunity to succeed at school.

During our most recent evaluation, participants describe their experiences with the program in wonderfully positive ways:

What do you like most about homework club?
“The fact that we have such amazing helpers who connect with us.”
“Reading practice and math practice, because at school it’s much harder.”Empowerment Squared
“Volunteers help us when we don’t understand, they take their time to help, and they give us work to do when we don’t have any.”

What do you like best about working with a tutor?
“The way they care about us and help us with our homework.”
“They make you understand the work slowly and better than your teacher.”
“I get more help and I understand better one on one; I don’t get that at school.”

(McMaster Children & Youth University)

What is the importance of giving post-secondary experiences to kids?
Research has shown that increasing the level of one’s education provides opportunities that allow youth to build a happy, healthy, and productive life. Our immediate goal is to demonstrate that learning can be engaging and fun. One important skill that develops through post-secondary training is critical thinking and the ability to make evidence-based decisions. Our MCYU in the City program teaches this skill by allowing youth to explore this decision-making process as it applies to solving problems in their own communities. We hope this will encourage them to explore paths like university, college, or apprenticeship training.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is relatively new. How is it being received and why are these disciplines so important?

STEM training is valuable for technology-based careers and this is a major area of growth in the economy. Skills in mathematics, science and engineering help students excel in careers that are based on technology. However, at MCYU, we feel that an appreciation of the Arts and Humanities also contributes to developing a very important perspective for those involved in technology-based careers. Arts and Music are known to strengthen abstract visualization. As technology becomes more complex, the ability to imagine concepts on a very small or very large scale can lead to innovations. Therefore our program focuses on “STEAM-based” workshops (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math).

 Mission Services

How does your program support the goals of ABACUS?
“The 196” is an early intervention project in northeast Hamilton to encourage low-income young people aged 11-15 to aspire to attend post-secondary school. Its goal is to foster positive attitudes about education among difficult-to-reach students by improving their confidence and supporting the development of their academic skills.

The project is two-thirds funded by the Hamilton Community Foundation’s ABACUS initiative. In addition to funding, the Foundation is supporting our work in many other ways, by connecting our team to other ABACUS projects in the city to learn from each other, and giving us great research to guide our decisions. This support ensures that all ABACUS projects are working toward the same goal — increasing high school graduation and post-secondary attendance.

How is your program partnering with Mohawk College to provide the best opportunities for students in Grade 6-8?

We are really excited to be partnering with Mohawk College. “The 196” will run five days a week as an after- school program. On Wednesdays, youth will be taken on a bus up to Mohawk College’s Fennell Campus to play basketball and other games with some of the champion players. Right afterward, they will break out into groups to work on homework and study skills with the help of subject expert tutors. Youth will also get a healthy afterschool snack every day, and a bagged lunch once a week. When they get picked up by their parents back at Mission Services, they will be invited to enjoy a free dinner at our Wentworth location.

Native Youth Advancement With Education Hamilton

How do you incorporate Aboriginal culture / teaching into the program?
Indigenous Knowledge is the core of the NYA:WEH Elementary Program. Our holistic programming is based around the seasons and life cycles in the natural world, cycles of ceremonies and giving thanks of nations local to this part of Turtle Island. The Indigenous Knowledge Keepers who visit the program are specialists in their fields, and many hold respected titles in the traditional community as well, such as chiefs and clanmothers. On top of the regular programming, these Knowledge Keepers bring their own unique life stories and traditional teachings that reinforce what we have been learning as a group. We recognize our relationships with the natural world, ourselves, and other human beings (our ancestors, family, extended family, clans, nations, and other nations). Our activities include traditional skills such as beadwork, leatherwork, music, and storytelling. Each activity is a learning experience in itself and is paired with teachings, stories, and historical geographical and context.

What are the lasting effects you hope to achieve?

One of our goals is relationship building. Providing academic and cultural support to students and their families at the elementary school level will facilitate and enhance engagement in the school community. When students and families can see themselves represented and honoured in a welcoming and inclusive environment, they are more likely to be invested in academic pursuits.

Thrive Child and Youth Trama Services

How does your program support the goals of ABACUS?
School readiness classes for newcomer students will engage young learners, begin to reduce trauma symptoms, and build resilience in order to maximize school readiness and classroom success. The curriculum has been created for immigrant and refugee students exposed to trauma or experiencing acculturation stress, incorporating clinical approaches to addressing disruptions of self-regulation caused by trauma exposure. Improving self-regulation skills and knowledge of Canadian schools will support learning, student success, and attendance. Experienced clinicians will support teachers in schools to ensure these students are prepared for Canadian classrooms and able to function successfully as learners.

Why is it important to have a focus on newcomer and refugee kids in grades 6-8?

Newcomer and refugee kids in grade 6-8 are the models for their younger peers. The younger children in the school watch their behaviour and copy it. It is important to have well-regulated role models.

Newcomer and refugee students may have difficulties with self-regulation as a result of the losses and trauma they have experienced. Regulation difficulties can result in moodiness, depression, anxiety, a lack of healthy relationships, school avoidance, and difficulties with learning. Helping students to understand the connection between their past negative experiences and self-regulation difficulties is important to building their self-awareness (their ability to consider how these experiences have affected themselves). Learning and practicing regulation skills is important for being able to attend in class, to engage in peaceful relationships, and to learning and remembering.

Not only do students learn to self-regulate, they also learn to feel safe, to access help, and to begin to understand Canadian school culture. This understanding supports a student’s sense of belonging and success in elementary school, which can be a positive foundation for future high school experiences.

In high school, students have more independent and unstructured time. It can be a time when young teens begin to feel less connected to others. Prevention of future mental health difficulties through increased, earlier supports is an important step to building resilience before they begin high school. By building resilience at a younger age, there will be less difficulty at the high school level.


The ABACUS series is produced by Kristel Bulthuis (former Editor of urbanicity Magazine) in cooperation with the Hamilton Community Foundation.

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