I started using drugs when I was 10 years old and by the time I was 14, I was one of Lakewood’s primary heroin dealers. Life is so much different now. I have finally gotten to the place where I know that Jesus loves me. DSS, Thank you for giving me the second chance that I needed. I plan to live it to the fullest. I am currently attending CCD and pursuing my Associates in Applied Science.” Jack

2015 Graduate

“DSS helped me overcome drug addiction, gang affiliation and walked with me as I mourned my brother’s death. I am extremely thankful to the teachers and donors who helped me graduate and find new life in Christ. I am currently working at Outfitters for Christ, a ministry partner of the Denver Street School.” Corey

2015 Graduate

“After only a week at DSS, I knew that this is where my daughter Aubree and I belonged. DSS gave me a second chance to earn my diploma by providing on-site daycare so I could attend school. I am currently attending CCD and working towards becoming a Physician’s Assistant.”


2016 Graduate

The DSS Difference

Although Denver Street School is a school, at its core it is an “alternative family.” We take in students whose families are struggling to provide stability and positive role models. Some have no family structure at all. This instability has led to the students facing academic and social/emotional issues that big public schools have not been able to successfully address, at least not in the lives of the students who come to us. The family approach informs everything we do with our students–how we relate to them, teach them, counsel them, and discipline them. Our goal is to model for them an alternative vision of life in every aspect within the context of our relationships with them.

 Our program meets each student where they are and supports them through academics and social/emotional needs.

1) Academics:

Because of family instability that leads to poor attendance and poor behavior, our students have gaps in their educational background. This, in turn, results in expulsions and further poor academic achievement and often ends in the student dropping out of school. The Denver Street School accepts students at every step in this process. We not only work with them to address the immediate issues, but we also get at the root of the problem which gives them a new academic context in which to function.

 Our “small school, small class size” commitment allows us to provide the structural framework for specific programs and strategies designed to address the academic issues our students bring with them.

Gaps in educational background – All of our teachers are trained in literacy strategies; teachers create the curriculum they use based on state standards and the needs of the students; we have a “Mastery Approach” that allows students to continue to learn until mastery is reached.

Poor attendance – First, we make DSS a place where students want to develop relationships; strict attendance policies are coupled with accountability through daily parent contact for absentees

Poor behavior – We have a “parenting” approach to discipline that takes the long-term view and allows the opportunity for students to address their inappropriate behavior with help from their teacher advocate.

Poor academic achievement – There are a variety of ways in which we address this issue: Mastery approach with opportunity for revision; mandatory study hall for all students; small class sizes; teacher availability; volunteer tutors; literacy support in all classes; weekly progress reports and missing work reports for accountability; weekly Advocate conferences to review academic and attendance progress and student-created goals. Additionally, we provide independent study “credit recovery” options.

Expulsion and dropping out – We accept students who are unable or unwilling to attend other schools.

2) Social/Emotional:

A large majority of our students are children of former teen parents who struggled to provide alternatives to their own lifestyles for their children. Therefore, most of our students engage in risky behaviors—drugs, alcohol, sex, gangs, etc.—which are reinforced by peers and family. They end up experiencing the negative consequences of these behaviors: pregnancy, jail, dropping out, lack of employment, etc.

Because our Hope Academy girls have been pulled from sex trafficking, there are emotional needs specific only to them. We have a counselor to work directly with these girls, and our staff is trained to provide personalized support as needed.

Many of our students lack a fundemental understanding of what is appropriate behavior in various contexts such as school, work, job interviews, etc. They tend to struggle with what has been called “grit,” the ability to embrace difficulty, persevere, use their imagination to problem solve and be consistent.

Who We Are

We are a 501-c-3 nonprofit Christian high school serving the Denver metro area. We accept students who have struggled, dropped out of, or been expelled from other schools and need a more personalized approach to their education. The school is completely privately funded and recently went through its five-year review with AdvancEd, which accredits all the private high schools in the metro area.  Both campuses scored above the average of the 32,000 institutions accredited by AE worldwide.

We operate three campuses: The East Campus in Aurora and the West Campus in Lakewood, serving both sides of the Denver metro area. Hope Academy, opened in June 2015, serves area girls who have been recovered from sex trafficking.

The curriculum is based on state standards and includes courses in Math, Science, English, History, Computers, and electives. The student to teacher ratio averages 10:1. Student services include life counseling, tutoring, mentoring, athletic opportunities, individualized career counseling and testing, faculty advocacy, and health care referrals.   

Our Story:

The Denver Street School, DSS, was founded by Tom Tillapaugh in 1985 in a house off East Colfax in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.


In the summer of 1979, Tom Tillapaugh, an Oklahoma educator, came to Denver to visit a group home for people taken off the streets who were recovering from addictions and trauma. Tillapaugh noted that, though those living and rehabilitating in the home were working toward more productive lives, they still had a “street mentality” which often drew them back to their old habits and lifestyles. He concluded that the missing component was an educational experience that would not only instill a sense of self-esteem but also provide the tools for self-sufficiency. Thus the vision of the Denver Street School was born.


In 1984, Tillapaugh moved to Colorado with his wife and children to fulfill the vision of providing a quality Christ-based high school education for teens who have been kicked out or dropped out of public schools due to poor choices such as drugs, alcohol, gangs, etc. The goal was to help young people get back on the right track, have a second chance to finish high school and go on to success in life. He shared his passion with others who might be able to help and on May 13, 1985, Denver Street School was opened in the dining room of a house in Denver’s inner-city with himself as the only teacher. Over the years, DSS grew and expanded, not only in the number of students that it served but also in what it was able to offer its pupils. The majority of the students were minority youth, primarily Hispanic and African-American, along with a number of suburban troubled youth. These ratios exist to this day. DSS students, for the most part, have dropped out or been expelled from local public schools. Many are former or current gang members and teen parents. A high percentage of the students have had substance abuse issues. Most suffer from a lack of motivation and quality role models (particularly male) in the home.


The Denver Street School provides
a small personalized family-like environment with a strong interlocking network of relationships between the students and loving, caring adults who pour into their lives, providing that quality role model that may be missing in their own homes. The goal for our students is that they become self-sufficient, contributing members of society who love Jesus. Denver Street School has grown and evolved over the years. It currently has three campuses in the Denver metro area. It is fully accredited by AdvancEd, formerly North Central Association of Colleges & Schools. Because of DSS, many, many young people have overcome the consequences of their poor choices and the negative circumstances of their lives, and have gone on to find success in life.

Domestic Sex Trafficking & The DSS Response – Hope Academy

In 2012, Tillapaugh became aware of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST)-the selling and rape of underage American girls (12-17 years old). After learning of this evil, the Denver Street School set about to develop a quality aftercare program for girls that have been recovered from sex trafficking.

After consulting with law enforcement and other anti-trafficking experts, Tillapaugh set about to start the third campus of DSS-Hope Academy- a day school for girls who have been recovered from sex trafficking and exploitation.

Hope Academy opened on June 1, 2015, and is a year-round campus. It provides students with a quality recovery program where they will be safe, get the intense therapy that they need, continue their interrupted academic and vocational education, be exposed to the healing power of Jesus Christ, and be placed back on the path to success.

Our goal, in Denver, Colorado, and all around the nation, is to make a greater-than-token impact on the horrendous issue of the sex trafficking of underage girls and to help these devastated young ladies find redemption and hope for the future by creating a model that can be replicated nationally.

Our Students

Who they are

Youth at risk of educational and personal failure, particularly low-income minority youth, have unique academic and personal needs and require a more comprehensive approach to education that addresses not only academics but also life-skills building, career preparation, along with spiritual and emotional development. Some of these “at-risk” youth are in process of recovery from being sex trafficked, and our school is the next step in their journey. Regardless, every student who walks through our doors has a story of a difficult past and a clouded vision of a limited future.

The average Denver Street School student:

is between the ages of 14-20

qualifies for Free and Reduced-Price Lunch Programs

has dropped out, been expelled from or hasn’t succeeded in the public school system

is a racial minority (95% currently)

lives in a low-income neighborhood known for high poverty, crime and drug use

has significant academic remediation needs

has been involved in one or more of the following: illegal drug use, abandonment, physical and sexual abuse, sex trafficking, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, or gang affiliation

lacks positive structure within homes reducing nurturing adult interaction (especially w/ fathers)

has a sense of “hopelessness” and settles in life rather than striving for personal success

We strive to develop a strong trust relationship with the 100-110 students we work with each year. Through that connection, we hope to help create a well-educated adult capable of healthy relationships, equipped for a productive future and dedicated to fulfilling a worthy purpose with their lives.

Our Purpose:

Bringing hope, a second chance, and the love of Christ to Denver’s at-risk youth through quality education in a safe environment and a supportive network of loving, caring adults. 

Students will become productive citizens by:

  • Acquiring tools to problem solve and set goals
  • Identifying and overcoming negative habits
  • Having a vision for a positive future
  • Working to develop and maintain healthy relationships
  • Knowing the Gospel and understanding how to enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ
  • Finding and ethically using relevant information from multiple sources
  • Mastering course content
  • Earning a diploma

Our Board of Directors:

Mrs. Ann Paneitz


Mr. Max Bryant

Mr. Steve Foley

Mr. Tom Ladtkow

Mr. Gary Wing

Mr. Greg Dixon

Mr. Bill Schuster

Mr. Tom Tillapaugh

Executive Director

A quick look at who we are

Clean Slate Part 1

Clean Slate Part 2

Clean Slate Part 3