At-risk Montreal schools fight high dropout rates

Researchers studying high school drop out rates have found significant disparities between Montreal's boroughs, though some schools are trying special programs to change the trend.

Researchers find higher dropout rates in areas east of Décarie Expressway

Lakeside Academy has introduced a number of initiatives to keep students in school, including a program that gives every Grade 7 student a laptop. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC )

Two weeks after introducing a program that gives laptops to every seventh grade pupil at ​Lakeside Academy in Lachine, teacher Lorne Nathan says he is already seeing results he hopes will keep students in school.

"By giving them these devices we're giving them a way to drive their own learning. We're hoping it's just another way to make them want to be here and come to school," said Nathan.

Lachine's high schools have some of the highest dropout rates on the island of Montreal, averaging around 25 per cent.

A study by the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi released in November showed major disparity in dropout rates on the island and that several of Montreal's boroughs are suffering disproportionately.

Teachers at Lakeside say their school has become the exception after introducing a number of initiatives — including the laptop program — to encourage students to stay in school.

Lakeside student David Michelle, 12, says he has been using his laptop for work on group projects.

"My favourite part is that if you're doing a project with somebody, you're able to share everything with them, and you're able to let them edit so they can help," said Michelle

Not all areas equal

The study showed children living west of Décarie Expressway​ are twice as likely to earn a high school diploma than those who live east of the highway.

For example, about 25 per cent of students in Verdun, Ville-Marie and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve drop-out before completing high school.

In the West Island municipality of Kirkland, the rate is less than 10 percent.  

The study found that poverty was a significant factor in the dropout rates. Lower income areas were the worst hit. 

Though schools say there is little they can do to alleviate these larger socioeconomic factors, teaming up with community partners to keep kids interested is effective. 

Help from community programs 

Most days, when Terry Gallagher has time off between or after classes at Beurling Academy in Verdun, he's playing music at school.

Gallagher participates in a music program run by Youth Fusion, a charity that works in many Montreal-area schools.

The 10th grader says music is what keeps him studying. 

"[I would think] 'I don't see why I'm learning half the stuff I'm learning, I'll never be able to use it in life,'" said Gallagher.

Beurling Academy is located a "red zone," where student graduation rates are the lowest on the island of Montreal.

Eric Burnet, the music coordinator with Youth Fusion, says the program encourages students to set goals for themselves and achieve them, then transfer that energy into their schoolwork.

“We try to provide programs that will interest kids to do things that they may not be able to do during their classes,” said Burnet.

"Then they can go to class and they remember that putting in a few hours towards a song paid off, and think, 'Why don't I try this math problem?'" 

Beurling Academy's principal, David Abracen, says people also need to be more open-minded about how they measure students' achievements. 

“How you define success — it really can't just come down to numbers," says Abracen. "What we do is we ask the students.”

Though these efforts may not be enough to keep the most at-risk youths at school until they have their diploma, Gallagher's case, joining the music program worked.

"I just love coming to school now," he said. 


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