A significant number of young people with severe reading problems drop out of school and/or engage in at-risk behaviours. This was the case with many of the students who enrolled in the New School demonstration program.

The young people who were recruited to participate in the demonstration classroom were on average 16 years old and were, based on age, eligible for grade 10, although most had not passed a class in several years. They had either dropped out of school or were judged by teachers, counsellors and parents as likely to do so.

A number of the students had criminal records and had participated in illegal activities, such as car theft, drug dealing, and street violence. Most had some experience with the juvenile justice system. A majority of the students had experienced physical violence either as perpetrators, victims or both. Some students had insecure and threatening home lives; while a minority had stable homes and supportive parents.

The average reading level of students entering the program in the first two years of operation (as determined by the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test) was below grade 6. None of the students reported that they read for pleasure. Many indicated they had never read a book.

They were disaffected with school, had difficulties with peers and others, and lacked the basic skills required to complete high school and move forward toward a secure and productive adult life. Few thought they could complete high school and most expressed little hope for their futures.