"There are more illiterate people around today than there were 10 years ago. I keep meeting people who can barely write their own name."
It's a harsh observation about the 21st century but one that Sonny Sansone steadfastly believes.
Centennial College Youth Ontario Basic Skills coordinator Laurie Malabar says youth are surprised to hear they don't need a grade 12 diploma to be eligible for upgrading at the college level.
This longtime activist and resident of Gordonridge, a public housing community in east-end Toronto, has watched with sadness the growing number of youth in his neighbourhood who were kicked out of school and who now idle their days away.
"Education is the way out of the cycle of poverty and welfare," he preaches to anyone who will listen. "Everybody deserves a second chance."
Sansone, 51, has been trawling Toronto's housing projects spreading the word of free education to youth who want a fresh start. His personal campaign appears to have found a ready audience.
"People are shocked when I tell them that they don't have to go back to high school to get their Grade 12 diploma. They can skip that step and come straight to college," he counsels.
It's welcome news for the many youth he meets. They often tell him they're not allowed back to their high school for a variety of reasons. Others have such bitter memories of high school they don't want to return.
Fortunately, there's another option.
Centennial College's Youth Ontario Basic Skills program is designed for 18 to 24-year-olds who don't have their high school diploma, but who want to further their education and eventually get into a college program or work.
Fully funded by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, students take courses in communications, math, computer literacy and employment skills. The program runs for two semesters of 16 weeks each, Monday through Friday. Classes are kept small (20 students) to allow lots of time for individual attention by teachers.
The Centennial program is offered at no cost and even the textbooks are free, although students have to pay a $50 deposit that is refunded when the books are returned.
"Most of these students have never held a job of any kind," says Laurie Malabar, who coordinates the Youth OBS program at Centennial. "So there's a strong emphasis on job skills, both for short-term and long-term career goals."
Malabar says her typical student left school after Grade 9 or 10, lives in public housing and may receive some form of social assistance. The average age is 20, and the vast majority of students were born outside of Canada.
At the end of the eight months, students receive a certificate of completion that makes them eligible to apply for a career-oriented college program -- all without ever completing their Grade 12.
"People think their life is over if they don't have their grade 12 diploma. That's not true. Our program prepares them for post-secondary programs, apprenticeship training or employment," she says.
It's a message that resonates with youth. That's why Sansone is out there attending meetings, dropping off leaflets and reaching out to hard-to-reach youth. He's always believed in education as the great equalizer in society.
"If they're in high school, I tell them to stay in school. But if they're out, I tell them to come to college," he says.
"My satisfaction is in seeing them graduate," Sansone says. "My pocket's poor but my heart is rich."
For more information about Centennial's Youth Ontario Basic Skills program, contact Laurie Malabar at 416-289-5000, ext. 4350.
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