Closing the gap

Education Business leaders challenge politicians to tackle low literacy, high dropout rates

Overcoming low literacy and high dropout rates that plague schools serving the city’s low-income neighbourhoods means the province’s one-size-fits-all education model has to change, a collective of Saint John business people say.

The Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative is hoping to use the upcoming election as an opportunity to raise awareness with politicians to address what they have coined as the education achievement gap.

Tom Gribbons, chair of the initiative, said during a meeting with the Telegraph-Journal editorial board Wednesday that a study comparing provincial and district high school graduation rates with cohorts from five priority Saint John neighbourhoods – Crescent Valley, old north end, lower west side, south end and Waterloo Village – yielded troubling results.

We found a gap, which we’ve termed the achievement gap. And the achievement gap is quite large. After four years of high school, students on average,   coming out of these five priority neighbourhoods, we’re only seeing half of them graduate,” Gribbons said.

Given five years to complete high school, an additional 18 per cent were able to get a diploma.

Several members of the initiative spoke about the group’s plans to bring the education gap to the forefront as an election issue during the editorial board meeting.

The BCAPI group has published a position paper titled Are We Failing to Prepare Children for Success? which lists some startling statistics, in addition to the 50 per cent graduating high school in four years number. A total of 22 per cent of Saint John children are     not achieving Grade 2 literacy standards and that number is higher in low-income neighbourhoods. Statistics Canada shows 28 per cent of children 17 and under live in poverty in Saint John.

Through government, school, business and community partnerships, the group says some great work has been accomplished in the last 15 years, including the Early Learning Centre, the PALS (Partners Assisting Local Schools) program, ELF (Elementary Literacy Friends), En Route to Success, and others.

Gribbons said areas to be targeted include early childhood education, early literacy and extra interventions in high school.

If we want to make sure that our children are graduating with a real diploma after Grade 12, then we have to worry about them before they even hit kindergarten. We have to make sure they can read by Grade 2 if we want to reduce the achievement gap,’ Gribbons said, explaining the initiative’s “cradle to career” mandate.

In 2013, the provincial average for Grade 2 students at an appropriate reading level or above was 79.5 per cent. Reading scores were nearly 20 per cent lower at Hazen White-St. Francis School – a kindergarten to Grade 8 school that serves many of the students that come from Crescent Valley – one of Saint John’s priority neighbourhoods.

The anti-poverty initiative argues reducing that gap means allocating more resources to places where students are struggling – Saint John’s inner city schools, as well as some schools in Moncton and rural communities that also struggle with literacy and other outcomes.

Ever since Equal Opportunity in the 1960s, there’s been a policy of one size fits all, per capita funding for education and we’d like to challenge that notion. There are certain areas where more money needs to be spent,” Gribbons said

In the spring, the group met   separately with Premier David Al-ward, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant and NDP Leader Dominic Cardy. Gribbons said that while all three leaders had an understanding of the problems, they were all also hesitant to make strong statements about funding, particularly funding that would see a shift away from the per capita model.

We didn’t feel that they were really ready to buy into that at the time. One of the facts we have in New Brunswick is that Equal Opportunity is dogma in all the major parties, and to tinker with it is something that’s very difficult,” he said.

Gary Lawson, also a member of the initiative, explained that their vision is not about schools with better outcomes getting less funding, but about reallocating and increasing overall investment in education to raise the whole province’s benchmark.

Natural resources are wonderful for our province and we absolutely need them, but the long-term investment we have to make in our province, if we want to sustain it, is in education,” Lawson said.

Roxanne Fairweather, another   BCAPI member, pointed to a recent study by TD Bank economist Craig Alexander that showed Canada’s over all educational scores have fallen among OECD countries. New Brunswick has the second lowest literacy rate in Canada.

Fairweather said catching struggling readers at the Grade 2 level is crucial to creating lifelong learners. Through programs such as ELF, she said data has proven that 20 hours of extra time-on-task with a child can raise their literacy skills by as much as two levels. The long-term payback of that investment to society is enormous, Fairweather stressed.

The BCAPI group has specific goals within two years, 90 per cent of children will achieve Grade 2 literacy standards, including those living in low-in come neighbourhoods; and within five years, 90 per cent of students will graduate high school, including those who live in low-income neighbour hoods.

The group hopes Saint John voters make education a priority issue during the campaignleading up to the Sept 22 election.

Katie Bowden