This week millions of Canadian students are returning to high school but they aren’t all young people. A large number of adults will also be returning to high school.

For these students, earning top grades has little to do with bragging rights, scoring the keys to the family vehicle on weekends or attracting the attention of the cute guy/girl sitting over in the far aisle. For many adult students, returning to high school is a game changer, marking a reclamation of dreams, dignity and stability.

Conversations pertaining to the efficacy of our education system tend to focus on improving the current graduation rate. For example, earlier this year, Ontario’s Education Minister Liz Sandals boasted that 83 per cent of students have enough credits to graduate after five years of high school, which is progressing towards the 85 per cent goal set out by the government. A number of Eastern provinces, such as Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia, previously known for alarmingly high drop out rates, also reported an improvement.

This is good news, or, more accurately, partially good news.

A report, ‘The Generation Flux: Understanding the seismic shifts that are shaking Canada’s youth,’ published by the Community foundations of Canada, boldly declares that impressive stats are masking gaps in our educational system. For example, the report highlights that drop out rates in some low-income communities are higher than 70 per cent compared to 6-11 per cent in affluent communities. Also, dropout rates in rural communities double those of urban centres. In addition to interrogating dropout rate statistics and ensuring that we are providing all young people with the support they need to complete high school, we should recognize distance education programs that that assist grown ups going back to high school.

Often in the shadows of traditional high school diploma granting institutions, distance education programs fill a critically important gap within the education landscape. They are offered across the country but tend to be hidden gems, not fully understood or recognized for their positive impact. Ontario’s Independent Learning Centre (ILC), administered by TVO, is an excellent case study and model for distance education programs.

The ILC curriculum is rigorous and follows the guidelines set out by the Ministry of Education. All courses are designed by subject matter experts and their online delivery model responds to the complex needs of students struggling with adult issues such as single parenthood, poverty, securing adequate housing and lack of academic confidence. The program allows students to work at their own pace, grants credits for life and work experience when appropriate, provides teacher support, and recently launched a Facebook page so students can create friendships and exchange ideas similar to traditional offline high schools. This thoughtful approach to adult education has resulted in impressive graduation rates and even better stories.

Here are a few.

At just twenty-one years of age Laura has overcome drug addiction and is single-handedly raising three children, two of whom have been diagnosed with autism. Her first attempt to re-enter a traditional high school program failed due to family and work responsibilities. Laura almost threw in the towel, but decided to give distance education a try after her daughter inquired about whether or not she had graduated. Determined to set an example for her three young children she preserved through the program and now works as a Level 1 Medic. Laura’s ultimate goal is to become a Critical Care Unit Nurse but in the meantime she is happy with her new position as a medic and positive role model for her three young children. She makes a special point of reminding the two children diagnosed with autism that, “You can still achieve the same goals as everyone else, you just have to do it differently — like Mommy did.”

Bernard, a resident of the Pays Plat First Nation reserve, registered with the ILC program for entirely different reasons from Laura. Due to the legacy of historical atrocities and continued social inequities, First Nations youth often dropout at rates higher than the national average. Bernard was no exception. However, unlike most young people who dropout of high school, Bernard was able to secure a good position as a Water Plant Operator and held that position for over 20 years. In recent years, the regulations changed and his employer informed him that he would have to ascertain a provincial license to continue in his role. This is not unusual as the Canadian workforce has become more competitive, favouring highly credentialed workers. Although increasingly common, the problem was that Bernard could not get this particular license without completing high school. In order to continue in a role that he loved, Bernard approached ILC, the sole provider of the GED testing in Ontario, and completed both his Ontario High School Equivalency Certificate and the special certificate he needed to continue in his position.

Martha’s story is also distinct. As a Canadian senior Martha looked forward to an even longer life than previous generations. The challenge is that after her husband passed away, Martha needed to quickly find a way to reinvent and support herself. Having stayed home throughout her marriage, Martha didn’t have a clear idea of how she would accomplish this but knew that earning her high school degree was a good start. Like many of our seniors, Martha possessed an incredible sense of resilience, which led her online enabling her to tackle assignments and access educational resources. When she earned her high school degree her elderly mother was delighted, exclaiming that she had waited over forty years to see her daughter graduate.

These ICL stories exemplify the incredible impact of high quality distance learning programs right across the country, which help adults complete high school amid their hectic lives. While this demographic is not as ‘cute and cuddly’ as younger students in their formative years of learning, or as compelling as youth whose educational choices will shape their life’s trajectory, adult students should be included in our national conversations about education.

There are far-reaching benefits of ensuring that adults are educated. In addition to increasing career options, completing a high school education correlates with better health outcomes, combats intergenerational poverty, heightens self-worth and opens up new possibilities for pursuing well-paid trades, exploring entrepreneurship or successfully completing a post-secondary diploma or degree.

In fact, the United Nations has declared that it is imperative for both children and adults to have access to quality education as it is a “fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights.” As such, it would be prudent to set progressive targets that ensure that Canadians of all ages complete high school, articulate best practice standards for enhancing adult education models, and provide increased support to both adult students and the programs that support them.


Jay Pitter is a senior marketing communications specialist and narratologist. With a Master’s Degree in Narrative Theory and Methodology, Jay investigates “story” as a communicative mode, data, art form, economy and social discourse. Her writing credits include CBC Radio, the Toronto Star, Walrus Magazine, Spacing Magazine, Fireweed, Sister Vision Press, TVO and the book Climate Change: Who’s Carrying the Burden?