New learning model helps at-risk youth obtain high school diploma

The Children's Aid Society of Ottawa is pairing up youth in care with teachers who can help support the students as they work to graduate high school and the results have been promising.

Children's Aid Society of Ottawa pairs up teachers with youth in care to offer support

Ashley Ezard, top left, and her teacher Mia Kakebeeke, bottom right, have been working together once a week since the beginning of 2020. (Submitted by Ashley Ezard)

After spending much of her teenage years in foster homes and struggling with anxiety, Ashley Ezard says she wasn't sure if she would ever graduate high school.

Now, the 18-year-old is one course away from earning her diploma, which she credits to a new program with the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa (CASO) that pairs teachers with some of the city's most at-risk youth.

"I was missing a lot of support and advocacy to really push me along. I had a little bit of the skills myself, but I really needed someone to believe in me and to make sure that I really went there and I really pushed my limits," Ezard said. 

The Pod Model for Learning Support Program was developed after schools shut down during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Prior to the shutdown, Ezard says she was living in an apartment on her own and not attending school because of severe anxiety and depression.

Wrap-around support for students

Jill Bennett, the education liaison with CASO, said the shutdown of in-person learning was concerning because she knew prior to the pandemic youth in care, such as Ezard, were already more likely to drop out of school before earning their diploma.

As a former teacher, principal and school board superintendent, Bennett knew her way around the education system and came up with the pod model, a wrap-around system of remote support for youth.

"We connect with them, we engage with them, we get them to learn and then we inspire them to keep going on whatever path is set for them," Bennett said.

Jill Bennett, education liaison with the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa, came up with the learning model that pairs teachers with some of the city's most at-risk youth. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

In addition to helping students organize and complete their assignments, Bennett said the program's teachers also liaise with school staff and caregivers and advocate for whatever each student may need to succeed, which includes accessing mental health support.

She said there are common learning barriers for children in care that include mental health challenges, frequent moves and subsequent school attendance problems, and a lack of access to reliable wireless internet in group home settings.

During the first year of the program, more than 150 Ottawa youth in care were assigned a teacher, who worked on contract with CASO, a youth worker or a teacher candidate from the University of Ottawa.

Bennett said preliminary results have been encouraging.

"We had a 12 per cent increase in credit attainment with our kids and in some cases we had kids who returned to school, who hadn't been in school, and even some who graduated," Bennett said.

The program was so successful it continued during the summer and when schools reopened this September.

Kids in care 'misunderstood'

Middle school teacher Mia Kakebeeke says she was drawn to the program from the beginning and now works with about 10 students on top of her full-time job.

"These are the most special kids that I've worked with," Kakebeeke said, adding kids in care are often "misunderstood."

"A lot of them are the most intelligent, the brightest kids that I've met."

The pandemic has forced students to shift back and forth between remote and in-person learning. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Kakebeeke has worked with Ezard once a week since the program started and said her progress has been inspiring. Recently Ezard applied to post-secondary education and hopes to one day start a career in social work.

"She's found herself and I think that she's overcome so many challenges to be where she is right now … the spark has been ignited and she's kind of just going for it."

With support from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, the pod model is now expanding beyond Ottawa to youth in the care of Family and Children's Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville.