ABACUS helping low-income students stay engaged

In today’s economy, there are no guarantees of a financially secure adulthood for anybody, but chances improve dramatically with more and better education. It is therefore more essential than ever for students to obtain post-secondary education – college, university or a skilled trades apprenticeship.

Earlier this year, the Ontario Government announced that it would begin providing free tuition for low-income students to attend post-secondary school. This is welcome news, of course, but by itself it likely will not do much to change rates of post-secondary attendance for low-income students.

There are lots of reasons why children from lower-income families attend post-secondary school at lower rates than children from higher-income families, and lack of funds for tuition and books is only one of them. There is a whole network of economic, institutional and cultural barriers that keeps children from achieving their potential.

Far too many Hamilton children are being held back by this network of barriers. While the percentage of Hamilton adults who have not completed any post-secondary education is falling (from 15.7% in 2006 to 13% in 2011), there are still a number of Hamilton neighbourhoods in which low educational attainment is highly concentrated. In other words, there is a lot more we can do to set the next generation of students – every student – up for success.

A new collaborative initiative of the Hamilton Community Foundation and The Fairmount Foundation called ABACUS aims to identify and remove those barriers to open up better educational opportunities for more children.

ABACUS has the ambitious goal of aligning Hamilton’s school boards, post-secondary institutions, municipal government and community service providers around the specific goal of ensuring that more students complete high school, graduate and go on to post-secondary education.

Research into the effectiveness of early intervention strategies for students finds a number of components that are most commonly part of successful programs: a dedicated mentor who guides the student toward success; a curriculum personalized for the student’s learning needs; awareness and sensitivity of the student’s family culture; a positive, supportive peer group; financial assistance through incentives that include scholarships and grants; and a long-term commitment to maintaining the intervention through the student’s school experience.

Taking its cues from the evidence, ABACUS takes a proactive approach, starting early with children in middle school (grades 6, 7 and 8) to support children through this challenging period of development for a successful transition into high school.

The goal of the intervention is to: get both students and their parents thinking about post-secondary opportunities; encourage students to meet challenging, realistic goals for their education; help them prepare by developing their academic skills; support them with mentors, counsellors and extra-curricular activities; and provide financial supports where needed.

Instead of duplicating other efforts already underway, ABACUS is working with existing community programs that support its core intervention pillars to expand their reach, refine their delivery methods and foster better co-ordination between service providers.

For students who face the biggest challenges, a pilot program called Grad Track aims to deliver more intense programming and support for both the child and their parents to ensure they stay engaged with school.

But it’s not enough just to work directly with students. ABACUS also recognizes that the school and community systems in which students live and attend school need to be designed to ensure success for everyone. ABACUS works with educational providers to identify the gaps that kids can slip through, develop policies to close those gaps and then advocate for the changes that are needed.

There are a lot of systems that shape the lives of children attending school – the policies of the school board, of course, but also the way the municipality plans the child’s community, the availability of college and university outreach programs, and institutional decisions about where and how educational resources should be deployed.

Hamilton Community Foundation has a long and proud history of bringing various stakeholders to the table to tackle complex, difficult social challenges, and I’m especially proud of the work we’re doing with ABACUS.

That work would not be possible without the generosity of The Fairmount Foundation, established by Heidi Balsillie, who wants ABACUS to be a “game changer” for Hamilton’s future. As Heidi explains, “This kind of change does not happen quickly. But it has the potential to transform the whole community.”


Terry Cooke is President & CEO at Hamilton Community Foundation.

Terry Cooke


Originally published in Urbanicity July issue.