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"Teach for Canada" Schools Itself Ahead of Formal Launch

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Young students from Canada are ranked among the top academic performers in the world. So why does a strategy consultant and law student want to import parts of Teach for America, an educational improvement program that at times has proven controversial, up north?

Only 7.8 per cent of Canadians dropped out of high school last year, a figure that has steadily fallen for more than two decades, according to data from Statistics Canada. But scratch below that boast-worthy figure, which is lower than many other developed countries globally, and the dropout numbers actually climb from 17 per cent among rural students to more than 60 per cent for First Nations and Inuit students in remote communities.

"In our own country, in our own backyard, there are third-world conditions, and you don't have to go to sub-Saharan Africa for a summer, or for a year or two years, to actually do development work," says Adam Goldenberg, a former Liberal Party staffer on Parliament Hill who is now a law student at Yale University.

Goldenberg and Kyle Hill, a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group in Toronto, already hold impressive resumes. Yet their latest project -- as co-founders of Teach for Canada -- seems to outshine the rest, at least among a growing circle of social entrepreneurs. While Teach for Canada is not officially affiliated with Teach for America, its approach is certainly inspired by the same group as well as a global network of more than a dozen similar programs. This week marks the start of a two-year public awareness campaign (and, of course, a massive fundraising drive) for Teach for Canada, which is set to formally launch in September 2014 in time to train teachers to start for the following school year.

In other countries, organizations such as Teach First in England, Teach for Malaysia and Teach for Australia have fielded thousands of applications from young professionals and graduates vying to help underperforming and, oftentimes, underprivileged students score higher grades and improve literacy. Teachers then move on from what is seen by some employers as a prestigious work-experience program, and they are typically told that they will become part of an illustrious network of movers and shakers who could shape educational policy down the road. "Already, 50 per cent of our associates have been rewarded with additional responsibilities or have taken on positions of leadership within their schools," Teach for Australia, which started less than four years ago, says on its website.

Yet most teachers normally commit just two years before moving on to a different job, sometimes outside of teaching entirely. It is a trend that has long been criticized by some, particularly in the U.S. Many professionals under the program are also not actually certified to be teachers but are rather trained and still able to work through the help of development training schemes and online coursework.

Even so, Teach for Canada plans to ask new recruits, of which there may only be 50 selected in the first year, to commit to a two-year stint. To decrease the likelihood that a teacher would leave earlier than that in smaller towns, Teach for Canada will try to cluster more than one of its own in the same community. The group warns that while this may not always be possible, teachers in more remote areas tend to earn higher wages than their urban counterparts and may also garner other incentives such as a flight home to visit family as well as to attend an annual conference under Teach for Canada.

"Things will go wrong," acknowledges Goldenberg. "Teachers will quit and people will get on the next flight home, but I don't think that's a deterrent to trying. Just because things may go south in any particular community, that won't prevent us from trying to make a difference there in the first place," he adds.

One of Teach for Canada's biggest hurdles will be finding a way for professionals who are not already certified as teachers to earn an educational exemption under government rules or otherwise become credentialed -- "the latter of which is way more time and resource-intensive," says Hill.

Adapting the Teach for America model for Canada also requires extra sensitivities given the long and tumultuous history between federal, provincial and local governments here, which oversee the education system, and the country's Aboriginal peoples. "The advice we've gotten from Canadian leaders who have a lot of interaction on the ground is you need to be part of that community," says Hill. "If that means having 20 teachers, not 50, in the first year then we'll do that. We'll never sacrifice on the ground community relationships."

To stay up to date with Teach for Canada's progress, follow the group's co-founders on Twitter @TeachForCanada.