The diplomas are organized in tidy rows. Teens in their semi-formal best, carry on with their friends. And parents snap pictures of their children.

The scene at Waterfront Centre, a banquet hall overlooking the bay, had the look and feel of a high school graduation.

The 50 or so teenagers who crossed the stage on Wednesday evening are the first group of high-schoolers to complete the city's Pathways to Education program. Debuted in Toronto's Regent Park neighbourhood in 2001, the award-winning initiative aims to raise high school graduation rates in low-income communities, where dropout rates have historically been high.

"It's to close the achievement gap, to level out the playing field for kids that could come from homes that, typically, have a lower socio-economic status backgrounds," said Susan Robins, the manager of Hamilton's Pathways to Education program.

The Hamilton program was introduced in 2009 and serves families in the Bennetto and Keith neighbourhoods, located in the city's underprivileged north end. Any student living in the catchment area — which for Hamilton, is the area bordered by Barton Street to the south, the waterfront to the north, Queen Street to the west and Sherman Avenue to the east — is allowed to participate.

The program, funded by two levels of government, as well as private donors and charities, provides students a financial incentive — $4,000 at the end of program, to go towards college or university — to students to encourage them to stay in school. In addition, participants receive after-school tutoring each week, and attend group mentoring sessions to make sure they're on track. 

Meet three Pathways grads:

  • Name: Justin Ray

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Justin Ray (Cory Ruf/CBC)

  • School: Cathedral Catholic Secondary School
  • Plans for next year: Electrical engineering at Algonquin College
  • What does Pathways mean to you? It's a really good sense of community. It brings a lot of kids from different schools together.
  • How has the program affected your schooling? It's had a huge influence. It's connected us with tutors from Mohawk and McMaster. And there is the mentoring side of it too, where it just gets you connected with the community.
  • On his big dreams for the future:

  • Name: Victoria Kaulback

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Victoria Kaulback (Cory Ruf/CBC)

  • School: Cathedral Catholic Secondary School
  • Plans for next year: French studies at York University
  • What does Pathways mean to you?  To me, Pathways means a place where you can be yourself and they give you opportunities to reach your full potential.
  • How has the program affected your schooling? I've had a lot of ups and downs in my life and I think that if it weren't for Pathways, I'd be quite down. I've gotten to a better place being with Pathways, and I've been able to reach my goals academically.
  • On "saving the world:"

  • Name: Tyler Mattinson

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Tyler Mattinson (Cory Ruf/CBC)

  • School: Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School
  • Plans for next year: Architecture at Conestoga College
  • What does Pathways mean to you? Pathways, to me, is opportunities and being able to experience different things, from using the health centre, to going to the art crawl. We've even gotten to go to places in Toronto.
  • How has the program affected your schooling? Pathways has been there to help me whenever I needed it, whether it be something small like proofreading my essays to something big like studying for my exams. I can also interact with students through all grades instead of just my own class.
  • On being the first graduating class:

'Hope and optimism'

Don Pente, principal of Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary, a school that many Pathways student attend, lauded the program for the supports it provides.

"I know it does make a difference for those kids, he said. "I've seen kids who, in the past, were at risk of dropping out. But with this extra support, they've made it through."

In addition, he said he likes the program because it gives "hope and optimism" to students who might not otherwise have envisioned themselves being successful academically.

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Susan Robins is the manager of Hamilton's Pathways to Education program. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

"It helps them get on that path, and stay on that path."

It's early, Pente said, to accurately measure how much the Pathways program will dampen dropout rates. But the early signs, as well as the programs track record in other communities, bode well for Hamilton.

Of the 455 north-end high school students who are eligible to participate, 356, or 78 per cent, are involved in the program.

And of the 87 Grade 12 students in the program, 53 are graduating this week, while the rest are returning an additional year of high school.

Robins said of those who are finishing in four years: "For our graduating class this year — and I think this will never happen again —100 per cent of them are going onto post-secondary."

'Wonderful feeling'

Though the students' success is cause for celebration, it's also a time for reflection for Pathways staff, who will see off the first group of kids who made their way through the program.

"It's amazing to see the change in the students from 13 and 14 years old — and looking very much 13 and 14 years old — to being 18, 19 years old, employed in part-time jobs, having already been accepted to universities and colleges," said Jack Bernacki, who's worked with the Hamilton Pathways program since its inception.

"They're making very grownup plans, to move away, to prepare themselves for being a university student. It's really a wonderful feeling."