The young, eager faces of the Thorn Lodge Public School students who braved a January snowstorm to attend choir practice four years ago struck a chord with accompanist Catherine Soplet.
“I realized that it takes so little time to bring a sense of joy and productivity to children,” said the 50-year-old Mississauga mother of three. “And that’s when it came to me.”
Soplet, whose young, middle-class family of five was suddenly financially strapped by having to care for ailing in-laws and a troubled 13-year-old niece, was volunteering her time so her children could sing in a choir.
The students in the choir, most of them new Canadians whose families couldn’t afford music lessons or Registered Education Savings plans, should be able to use their talents to further their educational goals too, she thought.
Many were already participating in programs like Reading Buddies, which pairs students in Grades 5 and 6 with younger school peers to read together. Why not build on that to create a national “citizen apprenticeship” program where students could turn their time spent mentoring and tutoring into tuition credits?
The hours could be tracked through each student's public school years, through homework clubs or by the principal or guidance counsellor. Hours invested would later be used to offset first-year tuition costs in any public college or university in the country, with 500 hours covering the full amount.
The federal government would reimburse colleges and universities, and provincial governments would cover the minimal administrative cost of recording volunteer hours.
“The cost of the program would be more than covered by the increased economic output of a more educated population,” Soplet said.
“By engaging youth in a positive way in their communities, you would be contributing to safer neighbourhoods and lower crime,” she said. “And you would be helping parents who may be struggling to put food on the table, ensure their children get a chance to go to college or university.”
Students could start as early as Grade 5, volunteering two hours a week during the school year. By Grades 7 and 8, they could participate for three hours a week. And in Grade 9, they could clock up to four hours a week. By then they would already have accumulated the 500 hours needed to cover first-year tuition costs.
Students would be on their own to pay tuition for future years, Soplet said.
Since that snowy January morning, Soplet has been working doggedly to turn her idea into reality. She has met with school board trustees and officials, city and regional councillors, her local MP and MPP, as well as provincial and federal bureaucrats.
In the fall of 2007, she helped Thorn Lodge school obtain an $11,400 provincial grant to show how the idea might work. The school used the money the next spring for translators and buses to bring parents from the low-income, multicultural community to four information sessions. Local high school students, under the supervision of City parks staff, provided activities for younger children during the meetings.
Parents became more engaged in their children’s learning, and the next year, student reading and math scores at the school improved, Soplet said.
“In this very small way, we were able to show that the idea works,” she said.
Soplet presented the idea to Peel’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Team in April and is working with the public and Catholic boards to try to access similar grants so the Thorn Lodge experiment could be replicated in three high-needs neighbourhoods in Mississauga and Brampton.
“It’s been a scramble to put all the pieces together,” she said. “But the idea is really very simple and it addresses so many needs.”