Keith Daniels dropped out of the tenth grade because, he says, “I was making more money than I needed at the time selling marijuana. I didn’t feel like school was accomplishing anything.” Ray Gaffney left school during his freshman year because he was “tired of those teachers embarrassing me in front of everybody.” Donna Graves quit the ninth grade because she had just had a baby and there was no one to take care of her daughter.

Kids like these have one thing in common: when they’ve been out of school for a year or more, there is little incentive for them to return. By state law, all students who return to school must pick up at the grade level they left off, meaning that Daniels, Gaffney, and Graves would have had to go back to school with kids who had been a year behind them. To many teens, that is simply not acceptable.

Fortunately, Dallas now has an alternative. Dallas Can! Academy offers high school dropouts a chance to earn their General Educational Development (GED) diplomas through self-paced programs, including tutoring sessions, job-interviewing skills, and a drug counseling program. “I like it better than I did school,” says Donna Graves. “If you have a problem, you can go ask people and they’ll talk to you. At regular school, the teachers would just holler at you.”

Dallas Can! Academy was founded in 1984 by Grant East, who, through his nondenomina-tional Christian outreach foundation. Freedom Ministries, had been ministering to pris-oners. Most, he found, were high school dropouts. East’s first graduating class (ten students) was in the fall of 1987, and the program has been expanding ever since.

A key to the success of Dallas Can! lies in motivation. Students gain confidence in their ability to take tests, and feedback on progress comes quickly. Those doing poorly are tutored, with the result that almost every student maintains an A or B average. Once a week a motivational speaker-usually someone who overcame personal problems to become educated-is brought in to talk to the kids in what the school calls the “winners circle.”

Clearly, the Dallas Can! methods are working: 80 percent of the kids receive GEDs and many have gone on to junior college or trade school, usually with either a scholarship or a part-time job found with the help of the academy.

Dallas Can! is funded roughly fifty-fifty by private and public funds, and, like all nonprofit organizations in Dallas, it must scramble for every penny. But because of its success rate with dropouts, the academy has been raising money more easily than many nonprofits. East’s near-term goal is to graduate more than 300 kids from both the East Dallas campus and the new South Dallas campus near Fair Park. Beyond that, he says, it will take at least six area academies to meet the demand of dropouts who wish to get an education; more than 18,000 kids drop out of DISD every year.

It’s a big job, but for East and his staff members, the reward is the hope put into the hearts of once-hopeless kids.


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