Back on track

Three-year Grad Track program builds resilience in middle-school kids

Somewhere in Hamilton, a Grade 8 student is researching the high-school courses she needs to become an electrician. Another plans to study translation at university so he can help others the same way he helps his mom every day. A third is connecting with film and theatre professionals to learn about a career in set design.

These anecdotes may not seem overly remarkable—until you understand that these middle-school students didn’t enter Grade 6 with big dreams for their future. So what is prompting them to imagine something more?

The answer is Grad Track, Hamilton Community Foundation’s three-year pilot program to help two groups of middle school students—one in each of Hamilton’s school boards—discover what they’re good at (and enjoy) and develop the learning skills they need to stay on track toward futures they’ve chosen for themselves.

Grad Track is part of ABACUS, HCF’s initiative to put more students on the path to post-secondary education, including trades and apprenticeships. Grad Track reaches out to middle-school students who could benefit from ABACUS programming but who are not as likely to show up for traditional
extra-curricular activities. The program combines one-on-one mentoring, enrichment opportunities, goal setting, peer interaction and parent involvement to encourage each student’s social, emotional, cognitive and academic growth.

Jen Pearson is Grad Track’s learning coach. Over the past three years she has seen each of the 40 students almost every day, by turns playing the roles of mentor, caring adult and supportive friend. She has helped students learn to trust, cope with uncertainty, recover from setbacks and identify potential careers.

“Back in Grade 6, a third of them wanted to be YouTubers,” Jen says. “Two years later, they’re talking about being vet techs, civil engineers, firefighters or journalists—careers that match their interests and personalities.”

Formal evaluations also show promise. Students are more responsible, resilient, kind and collaborative after two years in Grad Track. They’re better advocates for themselves and they can talk about how short-term actions could have an impact on their long-term goals. As one student says, “When you make mistakes it teaches you how to fix them.”

Resilience is probably the most important thing students learn. “I can’t say: yes, this kid is on a clear and steady path to go to post-secondary,” Jen says. “These kids live in a complex world and anything could happen. What Grad Track does, is help instill an ability to overcome the odds.”

Jen will stay with the Grad Track students through their transition to Grade 9 this year, helping them connect with mentors and resources in their new schools.
HCF will apply what is being learned to shape ABACUS’s future directions. Time will tell whether Grad Track has made a difference: an evaluation initially funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario is planned to follow the students beyond Grade 8, with the potential to track indicators such as high-school attendance, grades and post-secondary enrollment.

Jen already knows that the interpersonal component of Grad Track has made a difference. “Kids won’t show up unless they trust you. Parents won’t get involved unless they know your name.

“Programs alone don’t change people,” she says. “It’s the relationships that do.”


Excerpt from 2019 Annual Report