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As a physician, I often watch parents struggling to keep their kids in school by any means.

One of my patients had a son who had never done well in the classroom. His early years had been spent merely surviving. Adopted as an eight-year-old after years of bouncing around in foster care, he came into his new family testy, distracted and suspicious. How testy? His mom caught a whiff of what was ahead when he flung himself into the road in front of oncoming cars and then screamed in front of stunned onlookers (and his equally horrified mother) that she had pushed him.

Not surprisingly, he had trouble at school. Today, he has that incredibly necessary piece of paper for adulthood in Canada, that passport to some kind of future -- a high-school diploma. But it was a long struggle and one his mother fought because she was determined her son would stay in school.

Professor Alan King of Queen's University has been tracking the success rate of Ontario's secondary schools and he's not too pleased with the trends. Fully 30 per cent of the current Grade 9 classes are expected to leave school early, without high-school diplomas, a rate that has grown by 3 per cent since 1999.

My patient's breakthrough came when her son's designation changed from "behavioural" to "learning disabled." A very smart teacher realized that not reading well sparked his frustration until it flared up in acting out. Changing his designation meant that he was able to get different kinds of help. It soon showed in his grades.

Even so, it wasn't enough. When he was in high school and struggling, two coincidental encounters were able to reset his sails. The first occurred in the local pub, where his mom, who had his report card in her purse, showed it to a retired special-education teacher she was chatting with. This retiree was appalled that the classroom failure rate in English was 71 per cent and she promptly volunteered to be the boy's tutor.

It has worked pretty well for him. Respect is one of his testosterone-laden sensitive issues and old age earns his unqualified respect.

The second coincidence came by word of mouth from her son's friend, who told them about a co-op. This offered a 40-hour daytime volunteer placement in a workplace to gain one high-school credit while at the same time doing a 90-minute on-line course per week. He was assigned to a youth treatment centre, which, oddly, was where he had been placed as a young boy.

He did so well there that his confidence spilled over and he toughed out his two English courses in a single semester in regular school to get credits there as well. Without any math since Grade 10, he wrote the high-school math equivalency exam and passed.

He has grown into a handsome young man with an inscrutable, alert, steady gaze. He is enrolled at the collegiate level for cooking school. His learning-disabled designation continues to give him extra help with writing and reading.

Another patient had to deal with a son who had dropped out of school.

She found help in a new project run by Laura Crane, a special-ed teacher. Ms. Crane's classroom is her car, and her neighbourhood is the 110 secondary schools of the Toronto District School Board. Her program began in January as a pilot for 16-to-19-year-olds at risk. It's called Continuous Intake Co-op (or CIC) and it provides students a way to earn credits while they work at entry-level jobs.

Ms. Crane doesn't find them jobs -- she notes they have a way of sabotaging that effort. But she does everything short of actually doing the interview for them. She helps them write résumés and do job searches and gathers them up to drive them to the interview. Her car contains a wardrobe of donated clothing to help them put the best foot forward.

She then negotiates with a potential employer to ensure that the job meets curriculum guidelines, and stays on as a liaison between the workplace, the student and the school.

Grades are assigned to her students and there are weekly assignments expanding on practical knowledge regarding labour law, workplace safety, union organization and even toxic waste.

Most of these students are boys. But no matter what their gender, in Laura Crane's eyes they have accepted failure too soon and have lost confidence in their abilities. While some may have been trouble in a regular class and earned their way to the door, she is more focused on the quiet ones at the back, the ones never heard from, the disengaged, bored and finally disappeared.

For her 25 students, Ms. Crane functions as a confidante, available 24/7. Everyone has her cellphone number and, yes, the calls come in the night -- after all, the students may be on shift work and employers need to be able to reach her if there is a problem. When she presents her program to guidance counsellors and vice-principals, their eyes light up. So it's no surprise there are 35 students on her waiting list.

My patient is still holding her breath as her son, seemingly re-engaged in schooling, is now earning credits through this pilot project.


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