Denver Street School: Serving Denver’s At Risk Youth for Three Decades

By the time Jack was 14 he was one of Denver’s biggest heroin dealers. And for Melina, the responsibilities and challenges of being a mother became a reality at 15. Under these circumstances, education typically takes a back seat. Unfortunately, stories like Jack’s and Melina’s are all too common, which explains why more than 1 million young adults drop out of high school every year to face an almost certain life of poverty and incarceration.

But for the past 30 years, Thomas Tillapaugh has been working with educators, volunteers and partners to create a safe and nurturing environment for some of the most challenging cases of at risk youth — young adults like Jack and Melina who have graduated and turned their lives around.

As the founder of the Denver Street School, a fully accredited school with a strong Christian component, Tillapaugh has devoted the past 30 years building on the remarkably straightforward concept of instructing young adults who had been essentially cast off as lost causes. As Tillapaugh tells the story, he and his wife literally opened up their homes to the homeless youth in Denver. Through persistence and dedication, Tillapaugh eventually found financial support from community members who shared in his vision to open a school for at-risk youth.   

In a few short years, Tillapaugh found himself taking calls from people across the country who had heard about the Denver Street School and wanted to adopt the model in their local communities. Today, the Denver Street School franchises in other cities and states, including New York City and Florida.

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This photo was taken in 1985, the year Denver Street School opened. It has been serving Denver’s at-risk youth ever since. | Photo: Denver Street School

What’s the secret behind the Denver Street School’s success? Tillapaugh says his students respond to the love and care of adults who pour themselves into their lives and will be there for them. Under challenging circumstances, educators and administrators need to know that being there for these kids may come at a point of “extreme inconvenience.” Tillapaugh recounts the emotional toll of having to identify the body of a former student at a morgue, and another case of watching helplessly as a former student succumbed to AIDS.

And yet it is clear that Tillapaugh has found educators that share his passion and are prepared to take on the burden that comes with being a part of the Denver Street School. Educators like Christina Scmitzler, who teaches in the East Campus of the Denver Street School, in a predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood. Scmitzler says she wants her students to know they are precious and loved by God. She cares for her students as if they were her own.

The Denver Street School is a Christian institution that combines academics with discipleship. However, being a professing Christian is not a prerequisite for enrollment or graduation. According to school’s mission statement, students are never discriminated against because of their religion. Nonetheless, the school does hope students will know and understand the transforming power of Jesus Christ, and will experience His love while they attend the school.

Because the Denver Street School does not hide its mission from anyone interested in helping the school model, Tillapaugh tells Opportunity Lives that he knows he has lost out on some funding opportunities. But he is convinced that the faith-based approach has been vital to the school’s success.

What’s more, given that 85 percent of the students who are enrolled for at least a semester graduate, many are taking notice — including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which awarded a grant to the Denver Street Schools, lauding them as a model of individualized, personalized education in a small school setting.

Even though he’s survived two open-heart surgeries, Tillapaugh is not slowing down. In fact, under Tillapaugh’s leadership, another Denver Street School campus recently opened up that is educating adolescent girls who have been sexually abused or victims of sex trafficking.

As a Christian conservative, Tillapaugh rejects the idea that liberals are the only ones that care about the marginalized and the poor.

“Conservatives are at the forefront of working to help the poor or hurting in our society,” Tillapaugh said, “but in a way that will effect true, meaningful and lasting change in their lives.”

Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @IzzyOrtega.