The experience of Quebec’s CFER work/study program

by Nadia Rousseau, Ghislain Samson and Karen Tetreault

Saving a job is about more than money: it’s also a major part of participating in the broader society. And the path toward getting a job very much and increasingly passes through education. In a difficult job market, high school dropouts clearly bear the brunt of unemployment and social exclusion. According to Quebec Department of Education statistics, between 1990 and 2003 the unemployment rate for high school graduates increased by 6.8 per cent, while for high school dropouts the increase was 34 per cent.1

Not long ago, the problem was seen in terms of lack of access to education, so the solution would have been to build more schools and increase the mandatory education age. But the persistently high dropout rate shows that lack of schools is not the problem, and given what we know about the dropouts, more mandatory education is not the solution. The real question is: How can we help students who are unable to complete high school become competent and conscientious workers? How can we positively affect the future of young people whose academic experience has been negative, frustrating and sometimes demeaning? An innovative program in Quebec combining education, recycling and on-the-job training, the Centres de Formation en Entreprise et Récupération (centres for youth training and recycling) or CFERs, may have a great deal to offer.

The challenges of vocational programs

For a young person to find a place in the adult world, it is critical that knowledge acquired through education be successfully transferred to the job market. This has become increasingly complicated as accelerating social change has made people more mobile. Hence schools must prepare students to invest and reinvest their knowledge in different settings outside the school. While there is now a greater willingness among educators to go beyond traditional education methods, the challenge is still daunting when it comes to vocational and social integration.

In Quebec, as in other parts of Canada, various organizations and programs have been established to reduce the dropout rate. The results of standard socio-vocational integration programs based in high schools have been mixed: too few young people achieve lasting integration.2 Programs that mix school with work, moreover, have not been an unqualified success with employers, who often complain of uncertainty about their role as well as young people’s lack of skill.3 Educational institutions preparing young people in their late teens to take their place as adults must find ways to help the potential dropouts among them not only complete their education but also find a job, stay employed and thus find their place in the wider society.

To assist them in this task, the Quebec Department of Education, in its recent educational reform, introduced two new streams at the high school level: job preparation and semi-specialized occupational training.4 Students can be admitted to a vocational program at the high school level even if they have not met the mother tongue or mathematics requirements at the elementary level. And students who have met these requirements can be admitted to the semi-specialized occupational training program even if they have not met the standard requirements at the high school level. This is a step forward, but if these programs are to succeed they must do more than just make it easier to get into a vocational stream. Their implementation must take into account what we know about the academic experience of these students, an experience often characterized by repeated failure. The stakes are high: a positive experience can translate into academic and vocational success. This is where the CFER comes in.

The CFER yesterday and today

Quebec’s 16 Centres de Formation en Entreprise et Récupération help young people complete their studies while learning about environmental conservation and actively participating in the job market. Their experience in the CFER provides them with a unique opportunity to boost their skills, their education and their self-confidence.

The project was initiated by Normand Maurice, who was known as the father of recycling in Quebec. Maurice was a longtime high school teacher in Victoriaville, in the Bois-Francs region on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River midway between Montreal and Quebec City, whose concern over the threat to the environment was combined with a preoccupation with the fate of school dropouts. In the 1970s he established a nonprofit recycling agency for the towns of Victoriaville and Arthabaska, and through his efforts the Bois-Francs region became a leader in recycling in Quebec.

Maurice’s guiding principle was that neither the environment nor young people should be thrown in the garbage: young people can have a future if they have the skills to apply in the present. Along with his colleagues in Victoriaville in the 1980s, he established the atelier de culture, an alternative program for students 16 and older, which became the Centre de Formation en Entreprise et Récupération in 1990. Within a few years, this initial CFER had evolved into the Réseau Québécois des CFER, a network of similar programs in various regions of Quebec, generally outside the major centres of Montreal and Quebec City. In the fall of 2005, 493 students were attending CFER programs, and about 50 teachers and 10 technical specialists are employed.

Recognized as educational institutions by the Department of Education, the 16 centres vary in setting and size. The term centre is significant as students perceive themselves to be part of a centre – not a school. To be eligible, a student must be between 16 and 18 years old and at least two years behind on the regular academic curriculum. The program, which includes academic subjects and hands-on training in a workshop, generally lasts two years and the students obtain a CFER certificate (issued by the Department of Education) that is not equivalent to a high school diploma.

Each centre specializes in a different industrial or commercial aspect of recycling. The school and the factory make up one indivisible entity. CFER set up the first waste-sorting centres in several remote regions such as the Abitibi and Gaspé. At three centres, students work with Bell Canada to recycle electric cables. Other centres focus on reusing wood waste or recycling computer parts – once recycled, the computers are given to schools that request them.

The 1,800-hour curriculum is divided into four types of training: general, personal, social and labour-market.5 The general training includes the study of language, maths and social sciences. Personal training focuses on the student’s self-awareness and his or her role in a community and the wider society. Social training focuses on developing skills related to work organization and sustainable development. Labour market training prepares students for their entry into the workforce, teaching them what will be expected of them at work.

The academic tools used in the CFER are original and reflect its founding principles. Reading materials stress information that participants need and can put to use. Students read the local newspaper every morning and maintain a vocabulary file of new terms encountered. They discuss the content of what they have read, sharing their new knowledge with classmates and teachers. Information is also communicated beyond the CFER. To promote environmental awareness, the students participate in a “caravan,” presenting environmental and recycling information to elementary school students. To develop organizational skills and discipline, they are responsible for keeping and updating all material related to schoolwork and other activities in a specially designated binder.

The CFERs help 16- to 18-year-olds acquire skills that are clearly in demand in the job market. Knowledgeable, productive and engaged in environmental protection, the students are contributing directly toward concrete solutions to the problem of waste. In each centre the aim is to develop useful skills in the expanding environmental and recycling sector. Students are taught – and learn to live – basic workplace skills and attitudes (the five key ones are discipline, respect, autonomy, effort and commitment). Academic courses are seen as means of entry into the real world rather than as an activity useful only in school. This is what makes the CFER valuable for students: “Being able to do manual work during class hours, being able to apply what we learn in class, being able to break the monotony of academic work by alternating class and manual work.”6

Collective Task (CT) teaching: A different way of working as a team

A unique way of marrying workplace and academic skills distinguishes the CFERs’ Collective Task (CT) teaching concept. A group of teachers are responsible for a group of students’ entire training process, both in class and in the workplace. Generally speaking, the teachers appreciate working in CT when it is properly implemented, and as long as it is a choice and not an imposition. They see many advantages in terms of their own professional development, sense of accomplishment and the overall development of their students.

CT consists of a team of teachers who participate in all aspects of the young person’s training and are consequently responsible for students’ overall progress. In a CT setting, teachers are not limited to the subject matter in which they specialize. Moreover, the absence of a set schedule allows the teachers to make sure that an idea is understood before moving on to another subject.

CT teaching requires a considerable degree of commitment from each team member. Everyone must have the same expectations, aim at the same objectives and apply the same rules. Teachers discuss disciplinary problems and consult and rely on one another, building on one another’s strengths and benefiting from the experiences of their colleagues. Each teaching team consists of three teachers, ensuring the presence of at least two teachers in class, one of whom teaches while the other supervises the students and meets their immediate needs. The third team member is free to assist in student supervision, prepare learning activities or take care of administrative tasks associated with teaching. The roles are rotated among the three.

Teaching takes place in a single classroom, which cuts down on disruptions caused by students’ movements. It also brings stability and helps create a sense of belonging. Students’ desks are in two rows facing each other, so that the students can see one another at all times. With no fixed timetable, the schedule varies from centre to centre and from day to day. Here is how Antoine Baby described one such day in his book on the CFERs: The students begin the day by reading the newspaper with a teacher. Then the teacher leads them in a discussion of what they have read, while a few of the students head off on a caravan with another teacher. Then there is a math lesson in which students apply mathematical concepts to furnishing and decorating a bedroom. In the afternoon, the students work at various tasks in the on-site factory.7

In a CT teaching setting, problem solving and conflict resolution take place outside the classroom, so that class disruption is avoided and regular follow-up of each student’s situation is encouraged. Interventions are immediate and supervision is constant. The classroom is an observation area where continuous evaluation takes place. Class rules are linked to the distinct values and philosophy of the CFER in developing the key interpersonal skills: autonomy, effort, commitment, respect and discipline.

CT teaching was designed for teenagers with academic problems who showed a lack of interest in school. It is crucial that teachers in such a setting be committed to helping young people develop along personal and social as well as academic lines. At the CFER, teachers spend a great deal of time talking, creating an empathetic relationship and thus encouraging the development of a bond of trust with their young charges. This means that when they run into problems, the young people are not isolated from the teachers.

A factory in the school

Creating the CFERs was no easy task. It took a great deal of audacity for the team of teachers in Victoriaville to abolish the class schedule and bring a factory into their school. In doing so, teachers had to overcome their deepest impulses about education, and trade in autonomy for teamwork. The factories operate in the CFER through the combined efforts of teachers, students and community partners. Teachers play an important part in the functioning of the factories.

The goal is to enhance the students’ employability in a future workplace through the transfer of skills acquired in school. The extent to which this transferability has been achieved is not yet clear,8 but there are things we do know. Our surveys show that teachers and local employers believe that CFER graduates are capable of being integrated into the job market. The five values taught in the CFER are perceived as playing a key part in helping the at-risk student become a competent, socially integrated adult. Some employers who are in a position to hire these students place emphasis on work in the CFER factories developing the students’ autonomy, while others stress skills linked to civility, punctuality, health, safety awareness and working in a team as the path to integration into the job market.

Generally a teacher’s perception of a student and that student’s self-perception are quite similar, while employers’ perceptions are not as close to the students’ own. This is hardly surprising, since employers and students work together for a year or less and students have a different relationship with employers than they do with teachers. Moreover, perceptions of the employer’s role vary greatly from one workplace to another. In some cases, these worker/students are treated like other employees. In others, employers acknowledge students’ limitations and see themselves primarily as supplementing the training offered in the CFER.

One observation that stands out among employers is that honesty and civility are a “trademark” of CFER students. Conversely, young people appreciate employers who offer advice, listen, are available to students and compliment them. This confirms findings from earlier studies9 that the more a trainer accompanies, supports, shows interest in and praises trainees, the more likely trainees are to apply their knowledge once the training is completed.

A step in the right direction

To what extent does Collective Task teaching live up to its billing? While by no means complete, our research, on balance, draws a favourable picture:

  • While it does not reduce students’ concerns about personal matters or social relationships, CT teaching does significantly reduce the stress felt by the students in relation to their education or vocation.
  • As far as trust is concerned, teachers and students agree that CT teaching contributes to the development of a high-quality relationship between them, although no statistically significant effect was found.
  • Similarly, CT teaching is associated with a significant increase in young people’s sense of social competence, though feelings of security, identity, belonging and academic competence remain unchanged.
  • Finally, working in a CT teaching setting statistically increases the consistency between the teacher’s evaluation of the student’s sense of identity (realistic knowledge of one’s strengths, limitations and the way that one perceives others) and the youth’s own feeling of academic competence.

These accomplishments are modest, and we should not have overly high expectations. In a globalizing, high-tech world, the challenge is an immense one, and no single institution, however innovative, will in itself address the problem of school dropouts. But the CFERs are clearly making a contribution, and educators concerned with this issue can benefit by looking carefully at CT teaching and the experience of the CFER.

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