“If you are able to learn—that is success. Shutting down is failure.” (Moussa Nyabenda, Education Coordinator)
Goal: connect every young person in our care with educational opportunities to equip and prepare them with academic credentials and skills, which lead to work opportunities and sustainable housing.
Eva’s Education Program was created in 2014 to respond to the stated needs and desires of young people served by Eva’s. They recognized the importance of better education to improved employment, housing, and quality of life outcomes.
Housed at Eva’s Phoenix transitional housing and employment training facility, the Education Program facilitates reintegration of homeless youth with academic programs and assists them to plan toward their educational goals as they move toward living independently in the community.
Some youth who participate in the program have dropped out of high school and/or have not been able to pursue post-secondary programs. Most face multiple barriers and lack the resources needed to access education. Some have not been in formal academic settings for a while and some have had negative experiences in school settings such as bullying and curricula that doesn’t reflect their communities and histories. As such, we provide homeless youth specialized supports they need to re-engage with education and grow in confidence and knowledge as they navigate school systems in pursuit of their learning goals.
Through the Education Program, youth gain:
- access to supports and resources that help them re-engage and/or continue with education
- help with identifying academic interests and setting academic goals
- support with developing and implementing their own individual learning plans
- help with enrolling in General Education Development (GED) programs and securing their GED
- confidence to pursue higher education
- help with exploring post-secondary education options and determining which are best-suited to them
- support with pre-admission English/math tests for mature students
- support with academic applications (e.g. securing transcripts/reference letters; interview preparation)
- insight into post-secondary life and maintaining balance while pursuing school
- understanding of financial aid options (e.g. scholarships, bursaries, student loans) and help identifying the best options for their circumstances
- help with applying for financial aid
- connection to online learning opportunities and resources (e.g. Khan Academy, Cool School)
- access to Eva’s student bursaries, which provide financial support for educational pursuits
- connection with tutors
- access to onsite homework club with peer and staff support
When Eva’s launched the Education Program at Eva’s Phoenix, only a few residents per year were accessing school opportunities—typically less than five. In our first year of operation, half of our residents ended up accessing education, and that number continued to rise year over year. Since then, it’s clear that residents who go back to school experience improved self-confidence and grow in their desire to continue learning and bettering their lives.
PROMISING PROGRAM PRACTICES
“Everyone has something that they do really well without having to think about it. How did you master that? Let’s reproduce that learning strategy over and over on something new.” (Jim Woodbridge, Manager of Employment and Training)
Trust-Building and Trauma Informed
Trust-building is key to Eva’s Education Program as a component of a broader trauma-informed approach. Program participants often express trauma as a result of their experiences of homelessness, which can also link to their negative experiences in the education system. It is no wonder that the thought of re-engagement with school can be anxiety-provoking.
Our program staff engage youth gradually, building youth confidence that staff are truly interested in supporting their learning goals. Staff provide space and support for youth to start by researching educational options and sharing what intrigues them. This allows them to gain a sense of control over their own educational project.
It’s important to note that re-engagement with school is often similarly gradual for homeless youth. For example, a young person might want to begin with part-time classes in a supportive alternative school environment or with online courses to rebuild that core sense of safety and achievement. They may want to audit a class before taking it, which can help reduce the stress of school and course selection. They may also want to talk with students who are already enrolled to get a sense of their experiences. We have learned how important it is to allow this exploration process to happen naturally at the pace of the program participant.
When we first launched the Education Program, we automatically scheduled appointments between program staff and Eva’s Phoenix residents. Of course, we quickly learned that the approach would not be a success. Not all youth were ready to discuss school. Program staff decided to take a more indirect approach, seeking out residents and listening to them in a supportive, open manner. If youth exhibited discomfort, staff encouraged them to do their own independent research on their education options and life goals. They encouraged youth to drop back in when they felt ready. Care was taken not to overwhelm youth or prescribe an educational outcome. This approach has proven to be much more successful, and we have found that the initial trust-building process with young people usually takes about a month.
Trust is best built when education support staff work from a deep understanding of the scope of issues that homeless youth face, especially mental health, trauma, and experiences of criminalization and interaction with the legal system. In addition to this professional knowledge, it is important that staff can connect to the lived experiences, realities, and intersectional backgrounds of youth.
There is no one “right method” that a young person should use to build on their education, and educational opportunities themselves exist on a broad spectrum. Youth may need and want to pursue an array of options, such as remedial literacy support, basic skills upgrading, alternative education, standard classrooms, night school, GED testing to gain an Ontario High School Equivalency Certificate, community college bridging programs and regular community college programs, vocational college programs, and university programs. Eva’s Education Program approach is flexible enough to suit the diversities, needs, and desires of the individual participant.
For example, jumping into a 5-day per week class schedule can be too sudden and stressful for a young person returning to school, and it can be a set up for failure. In these cases, our staff negotiate with education programs and institutions to find the best setting for the participant, such as an alternative school with flexible and fewer hours per day. A part-time school schedule can give students an opportunity to earn money and manage their energy and time both inside and outside the classroom.
We have found that it’s often better for youth to do fewer courses and get better grades than to be overloaded, and we aim to foster the right mix that will support lifelong learning rather than cramming too many outcomes into a short timeframe.
We believe that it’s important to take a supportive role and foster young peoples’ independent goal-setting and decision-making. We know that when youth feel stuck and someone else steps in to make tough decisions for them, it rarely leads to successful outcomes and can create an unhealthy power dynamic. Instead, our education support staff encourage young people to take the time they need to develop their own learning plans. Rather than prescribing a learning plan, staff ask key prompting and probing questions to help a participant work through the components of their learning plan. Staff help by making sure that essential resources are identified and arranged with plenty of time for youth to be able to move forward and achieve their goals. Staff monitor the participant’s readiness and help them find a suitable learning situation that will allow them slowly build back their own learning successes.
In our experience, participants involved in post-secondary education tend to be more autonomous in working toward their educational goals and will approach staff when they need help. High school students tend to require more proactive support. This is not at all unexpected given young peoples’ typical developmental stage in high school versus post-secondary schooling. It is important for us to have the skills, knowledge, and sensitivity to be able to provide tailored, case-by-case help for the array of youth in our program.
Positive Ties and Routines
Youth homelessness so often interrupts schooling as it weakens the social and community relationships, daily routines, and habits that are conducive to success in the mainstream education system. Education systems and institutions are often best suited towards those students with high levels of support and stability, who have tools and resources to maintain a regular schedule. On top of that, curricula and teaching styles of mainstream education systems and institutions often fail to mirror the histories, realities, and communities of many homeless youth. In other words, mainstream education practices as we know them easily disengage students at highest risk of homelessness and housing instability, unless students receive specialized supports with accessing them such as those offered by Eva’s Education Program.
A young person who is homeless often experiences chaotic sleeping and activity patterns that shift wildly from day-to-day in a context high stress and marginalization. Eva’s Education Program intentionally supports youth to be able to start a manageable and regular school schedule, which can help create new routines and patterns, bolster the building of skills that improve school and employment achievements, and grow healthy community relationships. We also help youth prioritize their schooling alongside work and other responsibilities.
Residents who live at Eva’s Phoenix often have relationships with other residents who are going to school—they may even be roommates. We often notice that the positive school experience of a peer can help encourage a resident to consider school themselves. This serves as a reminder that peer mentorship, even in an informal process, can be a powerful influence on school participation and success. Young people are brilliant at assisting other young people to achieve their goals.
Education program staff act as advocates in school systems and institutions. They make sure that participants get any and all benefits and subsidies that will help them move forward with their learning goals. These include materials and books, tuition support, and assistance with transportation to and from school (e.g. public transit fare, route planning, initial accompaniment). At the same time, we support students to build up their own resources by working part or full-time or accessing supports such as financial assistance through Ontario Works or computers through Renewed Computer Technology.
Eva’s Education Program currently provides participants some access to school supplies and financial assistance to register for supplies such as subsidized computers. We also help with costs of some certifications (e.g. food handler, security training). These supports are offered on a case-by-case basis with the main emphasis on helping participants access and earn funds to support their own education, wherever possible.
We also find creative ways to help participants get recognition for the community-based or “non-traditional” learning they have done or are in the process of doing. For example, there are instances where other programming offered at Eva’s Phoenix such as our Construction and Building Maintenance Training and Graphic Communications and Print Training can count for a high school credit. This can be particularly significant for young people who are close to graduating secondary school and can benefit from applied training at the same time.
Finally, the program staff provide homework support and extra tutoring on a casual, flexible drop-in basis. The kind of support youth require include math and reading comprehension tutoring sessions, which last between thirty minutes to an hour.
There is no question that education is a significant factor in the lives of homeless youth, even in the midst of their often stressful and difficult circumstances. Nearly 63% of all residents at Eva’s Phoenix are working on their education in some manner—53% of all residents are working on their secondary school diploma or its equivalency, and 28% of all residents take up post-secondary education. Young people have a remarkable drive to learn.
The reality is that young people experiencing homelessness are determined to build their education. It’s our privilege and responsibility to help them get and stay on that path.
Much of the research on youth homelessness, including the national survey itself, demonstrates that education and employment supports are key to help youth get and stay housed. From the inception of the Education Program to February 2017, we found that 53% of all Eva’s Phoenix residents went on to stable housing. Of the youth that were housed, 88.9% were engaged with school or had completed school, 24.1% had completed their education prior to coming to Eva’s Phoenix, and 64.8% worked with the Education Coordinator. In this group of former residents, 8.3% had their GED, 13.0% were still in high school, 26.9% had their Grade 12 diploma, and 38% were engaged in post-secondary education. These numbers suggest a strong link between better education and stable housing.
Upon exiting the program, 55% of participants complete their schooling goals and 77% are still engaged in schooling. The higher number for those still engaged in schooling represents those who have taken up and are attending post-secondary education.