Keeping kids in school: Times have changed since I went to high school

By Marla Tomlinson, Communications Officer

I was an average student in school. I excelled in English and music, faltered in math and science, maintained good marks in all other subjects. I was on track to go to university.

But I struggled. Every day, going to school was difficult for me. I was bullied – not so much physically, but emotionally – and I felt I didn’t belong. I was filled with anxiety at the thought of walking through the halls to my class.

I went regularly to music class – I had lots of friends in the class and I connected there – and I was fairly regular at two of my English classes because I adored the teacher (she respected me, and that made me trust myself more and believe that I really could succeed).

Many days I walked to school with the best intentions, only to be seized with panic at the door. Then I’d leave. I’d either go home ‘sick’ or find my way to the mall for the day. There was always a pit of regret in my stomach—I wanted to be braver than I was, I wanted to not be a failure.

But the more I thought of myself as a failure, the more it felt true. And, to be honest, there were several teachers who added to that feeling.

One day, with just a few credits left before getting my high school diploma, I knew I was done. I stood by my locker trying to convince myself to go to class. The struggle was so familiar, and I was sick of it. Sick of feeling so awful all the time. So anxious. So sad. So lost. I ended up walking into the guidance office and telling the secretary that I was dropping out.

I won’t go into many details, but I was less than impressed with the response from my school’s administration. Even as a teen, I felt that there should have been some attempt to keep me engaged. But there wasn’t. A few months later, I went back to the school to talk about how to get my diploma, but I stopped trying a few days later, feeling even less engaged than when I left the first time.

And this is where high school is different now. I think if I were a teen today, I would have ended up staying in school. Not because the panic and bullying would be less, but because there are programs in place to keep students engaged. And, if students become disengaged, there are people whose job it is to re-engage them.

Helping students find what works for them

Now that I work in education, I see firsthand how hard people work to keep students engaged and in the system. Teachers, administration and other school and board staff members really are working towards student success for all. Knowing how things are now, I can think of many different ways I would have been kept in school.

First, there is a much better understanding now of youth mental health issues. It is obvious to me now that I had serious anxiety issues (these did get worse in college, but I sought help). The SCDSB has a team of social workers who help students who face issues like I did. And there is a greater awareness among teachers about what to look for to spot things and refer students to Guidance for help.

My Grade 9 English teacher (also my Grade 12 teacher) ran the Yearbook club, which I was a part of for a couple years. I loved it. Now, that teacher would probably have recommended I take a Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM). These programs give students real-world experiences in a specific sector. I ended up taking journalism in college, and I excelled because I loved it. Imagine if I had found my passion while still in high school. SHSM helps students get closer to their career.

A dual-credit course would have also helped keep me engaged. These courses allow high school students the opportunity to take a college-level course and get both a high school credit and a college one. Not only would that have pushed me to work harder, but the college atmosphere was right for me. There were less of the cliques you get in high school, probably because each program is a clique in itself. In my journalism program, we were all there for the same reason and therefore were already in a group of like-minded people.

But, if those options didn’t keep me in school, the PASS (Pathways to Student Success) team would have called me. PASS teachers contact students who have dropped out with just a few credits left to graduate, and find a way for them to get their diploma. And I know that having someone reach out to me would have made a huge impact on my decision. I would have listened to their advice and felt a connection to the board. Knowing that they were going to keep in touch with me during the year would have motivated me to finish.

Finding my way

I was lucky. My mother was an amazing support for me. When I dropped out, she said to me, “I trust you sweetheart—you’ll figure out what you want to do in life and you’ll make it work.” And I did.

I now have my college diploma and a university degree. I found my motivation. But not all teens do, and these programs really help.

If you’re a student who is starting to feel disconnected or lost, please go to your guidance counsellor and talk about options. There is a way for you to graduate—I didn’t even mention eLearning, our Alternative Secondary School, co-op, OYAP or our Learning Centres. There are many, many ways you can finish school and get your diploma the first time through. Or, if you know someone who might be considering leaving school, please encourage them to go to guidance or share this post with them so they know they aren’t alone in this.

(And as an aside, if you’re in need of counselling support, but want some place to start outside of school, visit the Kids Help Phone online, or call them at 1-800-668-6868.)

If you’re a teacher who sees a student struggling, reach out. A word of encouragement can make the world of difference. I have heard many success stories about teachers who encouraged a student. I chose journalism as my college focus based largely on the encouragement my Grade 9 English teacher gave me (as well as my mom!). I didn’t speak with my teacher about college, but I remembered her support, respect and encouragement.

I am sharing my story because I want students to succeed. If any student wants to talk more about any of these programs, visit the links throughout this story for contact information. Or, email me at and I will get you in touch with someone who can explain these options to you directly.CCI program

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