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By Amanda-Marie Quintino

When Paul Rebelo walks down a high school hallway today, the memories of the obstacles he battled in his younger days spring to his mind.

“I went through some tough times,” Rebelo says. “I had guidance counsellors, teachers, friends and family all telling me not to apply to university because I wouldn’t make it … They told me that I was Portuguese and Portuguese people can only be cleaning ladies or construction workers.”

Highest Drop-Out Rates

Historically, Portuguese-Canadians in Toronto have had the highest drop-out rates in the secondary school system. Several studies have tried to pinpoint the reasons behind this phenomena. In 1998, the Portuguese Canadian National Congress published results of a national needs assessment study on the Portuguese community.

It showed the percentage of Portuguese-Canadian students planning to pursue higher education was alarmingly low. Joe Eustaquio, executive president of the Alliance of Portuguese Clubs and Associations, blames family and community for the soaring high school drop-out rates and plummeting university enrolment numbers among Portuguese-Canadians.

“The Toronto Portuguese community is accountable for the highest drop-out rates in all of the city, and it all has to do with the fact that children get very little incentive and support from home,” Eustaquio says. “In some cases, they even get pushed to go out and work.” Finding employment immediately after high school is valued over pursuing further education in many Portuguese-Canadian homes.

Traditional blue-collar professions such as farming, textiles and fishing have long served as the most trusted sources of income. Because of this, Eustaquio says, many Portuguese parents find education overrated.

No encouragement 

Raoul Gomes, president of the Portuguese Association of Ryerson, is among the few Portuguese-Canadian children who come from an educated family. “As I was growing up, (my parents) instilled in me an appreciation for learning,” Gomes says. “We (Portuguese) are very talented with our hands, but we’re also very talented with our brains.

Unfortunately, because of the stigmas that follow the Portuguese community, we don’t really explore our intelligence enough.”

Project Diploma

Maggie Uncao, project chair for Project Diploma, a program which encourages higher education for the Portuguese-Canadian community, says a lack of encouragement is only one of the factors holding Portuguese-Canadian students back. “There are definitely not enough visible role models, not only in the community at large, but in the school system,” Uncao says. “And still, parents are not informed about the school system, and they don’t really want to ask questions because they feel intimidated by the teachers.

Plus, kids still don’t know what their choices are. They still see themselves being streamed towards the trades, mostly by their parents and other people in their community, but we need to get the word out that if they want to, they can very well go to college or university, or even get an apprenticeship.”

Helder Marcos, project manager for Project Diploma, says there have been few attempts to improve the Portuguese-Canadian drop-out rates because the community has been living in denial about the problem. Marcos says many parents see no problem with their children working, as opposed to continuing school. “The problems were always existing in terms of Portuguese kids not going far enough in the system,” Marcos says. “But when the statistics first came out, the Portuguese community reacted in a very offended way.

Nothing really happened because the parents would blame the schools, the schools would say it was the parents, and it became very hostile. There was more denial than there was an actual desire to create solutions.” The people at Project Diploma hope to make education more appealing to Portuguese-Canadian students by running in-school mentoring programs, partnerships with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Toronto, and Adopt-a-Student days.

Through Adopt-a-Student, high-school students are given the chance to accompany university students in school for a day. Project Diploma also distributes a magazine which features Portuguese-Canadians that have excelled in the education system. The publication is meant to act as an inspiration for students who don’t see regular Portuguese role models in their community.

Other avenues to success

Project Diploma is not the only initiative working against the high drop-out rates in the Portuguese-Canadian community. Other organizations such as the Portuguese Youth for Immigrant Youth Project, spearheaded by individuals in the faculty of nursing at the University of Toronto and the Working Women Community Centre, have started their own initiative.

“Through various outreach methods, parents are informed of the program, whether it be through newspaper articles, radio shows, teacher recommendations, or even word of mouth,” says Sonia Neves, project coordinator for the On Your Mark tutoring program at the Working Women Community Centre. “Students fill out a questionnaire which gives us an idea of the areas they need assistance with. Based on student need, we try and match students with tutors accordingly.”

On Your Mark receives all of its funding from the Toronto Portuguese community and is a free service for students. The tutoring program came as a result of the Ornstein Report, a 1997 study that gathered statistics on issues such as poverty and education.

The report found that students of Portuguese descent had the highest drop-out rates, the lowest grade-point averages and were least likely to pursue post-secondary education. Although these and other findings have often been a source of dispute, the Portuguese-Canadian community in Toronto seems to be finally acknowledging the need to address its lack of emphasis on education.

Does it work?

Since the birth of pro-education organizations such as Project Diploma, no studies have been done to gauge whether their efforts have helped to lower drop-out rates. The 1994 Royal Commission on Learning reported that Portuguese students in the Toronto school system had a 41 per cent drop-out rate.

The Toronto Board of Education had similar findings in the early ’80s. The board is currently in the process of conducting a survey to determine where the problem stands today. A spokesperson for the board says surveying began in early 2005. A report will be given this month when the first draft of the plan to encourage education is released. “Obviously there is still a problem with not enough emphasis being placed on education in the Portuguese community,” Uncao says. “But, it would definitely be interesting to see what the board finds out about any changes that have happened.

I think people are becoming more aware of the problem, but it’s all a matter of them, especially parents, joining in on the efforts.”

It’s up to the students

While the push to promote education within the Portuguese-Canadian community is gathering momentum, ultimately its success lies in the hands of the students.

“We (at Project Diploma) want students to be aware of the generalizations and realize that just because they are Portuguese, does not mean that they should be forced into a (blue-collar) profession,” Marcos says. “We’re not a visible minority because we’re white. But, nonetheless, we receive very little recognition in the Toronto community, which makes us a huge target for misconceptions. Marcos added that students that don’t like being in a classroom are encouraged, at the very least, to get apprenticeships for trades.

A teacher who knows

Rebelo didn’t have the benefit of such help. Instead he fought through stereotypes and low expectations on his own. He eventually was accepted at the University of Toronto, where he received his undergraduate degree. He went on to teacher’s college. He’s now a physical education teacher at Bishop Allen Academy in Etobicoke, where he sees the same old problems repeating themselves.

“There’s a new generation of Portuguese now,” Rebelo says, “and with that should come a new generation of values.” Unfortunately, despite programs such as Project Diploma, Rebelo has yet to see those values come to the foreground. “I taught this kid, this really good kid, who I thought was really bright and had lots of potential,” Rebelo says. “I really thought this kid could go somewhere in life.

But he came into school the other day, and when I asked him what he was doing now, he told me he was working with his dad. He’s carrying rocks and stones around, driving trucks and doing landscaping. “Another example of a smart kid who lacked the encouragement from home, and just ended up doing what was most easily accessible.”

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