Press Release Archive

Drop-out Crisis Jeopardizing America's Future

The dropout crisis threatens the very fabric of our society, including our political and economic systems. In order for free enterprise to work, we rely upon an educated populace that is able to participate in and benefit from it. There is a growing underclass of those with an incomplete education. They may be in jail, on welfare, or just simply unmarketable and cannot take full advantage of our economic system. If we don’t engage in educating these young people, our nation’s survival is at risk.

The good news is that there is a school model that works for America’s youth at risk of educational failure. This summer, faith-based urban and at-risk youth educators from across the nation will meet in Denver for the 11th annual National Association of Street Schools conference to learn and share best practices, and gear up for another year of trying to persuade young people to give themselves a second chance.

The Street School model has evolved since 1984, when, as a young science teacher, I moved to Denver with my wife and two young children to follow a personal call to open a Christian school for homeless and troubled dropouts. I was 30 years old and in the eyes of the world—and my grandma—a fool.

We had nothing and did whatever it took to survive as I began sharing my vision with anyone who would listen. On May 13, 1985, I grabbed three kids off the streets and started the Denver Street School in the dining room of a house in the most crime-ridden neighborhood in town. My motivation for starting the school was seeing so many young people falling to the wayside because of their poor choices or the circumstances of their lives. I set out to determine the optimal school environment in which youth at risk would find success.

I found the school had to remain small so young people without strong external support systems are known and can be engaged; no more than a 10-1 student-to-teacher ratio. I discovered that it is critical to incorporate strong interpersonal relationships in a small family-like environment, creating the atmosphere most conducive to motivating adolescents to stay in school, lure dropouts back into the classroom.

By 1989, I began to receive calls from urban leaders asking for advice in operating similar schools in their cities. As a result the National Association of Street Schools, now the StreetSchool Network, was founded in 1996. Today, there are over 40 member schools in 25 states, with two to three startups a year. Students receive over 80,000 hours of literacy intervention per year, raising their GPA 67% over their previous school experience. Since 2002 we’ve served over 15,000 students and have awarded over 1,000 diplomas. The StreetSchool Network is part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Alternative High School Initiative.

I have been on the front lines of the dropout crisis for 23 years. We can debate curriculums and best practices, but I have found that there is NO substitute for physically being present with kids, demonstrating love for them by being engaged and in their lives. The more time young people spend with adult mentors, the greater the chance that positive changes will take place. This results in better attendance, behavior, grades, and ultimately graduation and success in life.

Simply put, it will take nothing short of the sacrificial intervention into the lives of these teens by caring adults to the point of extreme inconvenience. A significant portion of our time, energy, efforts, and financial resources has to be invested in our children.

Thankfully, because of the StreetSchool Network and other like-minded organizations and individuals, an increasing number of at-risk youth are finding that second chance to finish their education and go on to become self-sufficient adults with hope.

The dropout problem affects us all through an increased crime rate, a shrinking labor pool, social service costs, and an undereducated populace without the tools to participate in our democracy or economy. I encourage you to think about what sacrifice you might personally make to help our schools better prepare young people for success in life. Consider being a mentor, tutor, or coach. Provide training, job shadowing and internship opportunities. Get your church involved and financially support an organization reaching out to the dropout population. The future of our nation depends upon your engagement.

Tom Tillapaugh is the president and founder of National Association of Street Schools, now StreetSchool Network, and Executive Director of Denver Street School, which is celebrating its 24th year serving youth at-risk in Denver, CO.