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Certificate rewards job skills, not marks

Toronto high-school students doomed to fail because the new curriculum is too tough will be able to earn a certificate showcasing their job skills rather than their school smarts.

The new Employability Skills Achievement Certificate, to be offered this June by the Toronto District School Board, is even endorsed by the Conference Board of Canada.

While not meant as an alternative to Ontario's high school diploma, it will serve as an alternative to dropping out with no credentials whatsoever which many educators have warned will happen.

The skills certificate will be accompanied by a portfolio, put together by teachers, outlining a student's achievements on a skills list developed by the conference board.

It could include anything from problem-solving and multi-tasking to being able to use a computer.

"The skills certificate is something that is good for all students ... but there are a number of students in our system who are not successful in achieving (a high school diploma)," said Gerry Connelly, acting director of the Toronto public school board.

"This certificate gives them something that is credible with the workplace."

The certificate will be granted this June to about 200 students who have been in high school for several years but don't have the required 30 credits or who haven't been able to pass the mandatory Grade 10 literacy test or alternative literacy course, Connelly said.

It comes on the heels of a report warning that as many as 40,000 students across the province are at risk of dropping out because they can't earn enough credits to graduate in four years under the new system, and a lawsuit by families trying to put the literacy test on hold so their children can get a diploma.

Currently, the province offers a "secondary school certificate" for students who have completed 14 credits, or a "certificate of accomplishment" for others who don't complete even that.

But Connelly said neither has any clout in the working world because employers aren't familiar with them.

They're usually granted to students who drop out after a couple of years, said Judi Misener, principal of Sir William Osler High School, a vocational high school in Toronto.

"My students don't drop out," said Misener, who's been pushing for some sort of recognition for them after the previous Progressive Conservative government rejected suggestions for an alternative diploma from several Ontario school boards.

"These are all students who have completed 30 courses a mix of credit and non-credit who've been in school four years or more, and if at all possible have done their 40 hours of community service," she said.

"These are students who have been punctual, been attending, been doing their work and passing their courses," Misener said.

"They've been involved in work experience or co-op programs, so they have put their skills to the test in the workplace. They have worked hard to the maximum of their potential."

But they haven't been able to pass the Grade 10 literacy test, which is a diploma requirement starting this year.

"They're functionally literate ... and numerically literate," Misener said. "But they are hands-on learners. They've worked so hard to read and write, and at the end there's nothing for them, until now. It gives them some validation, some dignity and self-worth."

Misener expects about 40 of her students to be granted the certificate this year.

Students will receive a certificate, similar to the Ontario Secondary School Diploma, signed by the board chair and director of education, as well as the chief executive officer of the conference board.

Both the Toronto board and conference board logos will be on the certificate.

The Conference Board of Canada is a not-for-profit think-tank that developed the employability skills list with the input of hundreds of employers and educators across the country.

The list is widely used by employers in hiring and when retraining employees, said Michael Bloom, the organization's director of education and learning.

He said the deal with the Toronto board, to be finalized next month, is a first.

"All of these skills are skills that we believe are generic skills important to success in the workplace," he said. "Ideally, everyone would have some of them, but not all. ... It's not a competition, but it gives a holistic view" of a person's strengths.

In the past, many of the students who will be eligible for the skills certificate would have studied at the "basic" level and earned a diploma.

Now, the basic level has all but disappeared, leaving those students struggling to learn material beyond their capability, or taking courses developed locally by boards that often don't count for credit.

The 200 students the Toronto board is targeting this year is low, Connelly said, but "we're targeting the students with little chance of success."

Education Minister Gerard Kennedy yesterday welcomed the board's initiative, but said the province is also working on ways to assist struggling students.

"Suffice to say that we understand our obligation to students, those who would have graduated potentially and those who might have not. Our interest is very genuine," he said.

"We want them to have the greatest success they have."

Kennedy said the province is weeks away from announcing its own strategy to help more students graduate or at least stay in school and get on track to earning a diploma.

"This is a small start, we're hoping for a larger group next year," said trustee Bruce Davis (Etobicoke-Lakeshore). "There are a lot of students this can help. We can see this as being very helpful for students and employers."

Almost half of students who begin high school end up going straight into the workforce with or without a diploma.

This skills certificate should help ease that transition, Davis said.

— Kristin Rushowy
The Star
Certificate rewards job skills, not marks




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