The education minister has been asked to step in and help secure the €90,000 a year to keep the doors of the Cork Life Centre open.
A total of 42 teens, 12 of whom are due to sit the Leaving Cert next year, are now at risk of losing their places if the centre is forced to close.
“I don’t like the ‘early school leaver’ tag, because it implies they have failed in the education system, when in actual fact it’s the education system which has failed them,” centre director Don O’Leary said.
“It would cost the State €200,000 if I had to send these kids back to second-level education.
“And at least 10 of them would probably need special education units which would cost the State a further €159,000.
“We can do all of that here if we got the €90,000 we need to keep the centre open.
“As far as I’m concerned, the right to education is protected under the Constitution and the Department of Education is responsible for providing that education,” Mr O’Leary said.
The funding crisis has arisen following the withdrawal of key Christian Brothers’ funding which has helped keep the centre going since 2000.
It is based in Sunday’s Well in a Christian Brothers’-owned property, which was the former home of Cork’s first lord mayor Daniel Hegarty, in 1900.
One of four such centres across Ireland, its ethos is based on the SERVOL method (Service Volunteered for All) which was established in Trinidad by Fr Gerry Pantin in the 1970s.
Br Paul Hendrick, who discovered the system while he lived in Trinidad, brought the concept to Ireland.
He approached the Christian Brothers which helped fund the establishment of the first centre in Dublin in 1996.
The Cork centre opened in 2000, with 10 students, before two more centres opened in Dublin and Belfast.
Early school leavers are referred to the Cork Life Centre where over 60 staff, most working on a voluntary basis, provide one-to-one tuition in Junior and Leaving Cert subjects, supporting them in their preparation for state exams.
The Christian Brothers have provided the core €90,000 funding every year, with €50,000 coming from various government funding streams.
But, in 2008, the religious order warned that it would be unable to continue providing the funding, citing its own financial pressures. It has now been forced to pull the plug.
A campaign is now under way to persuade the State to pick up the balance.
“We are not a school. School for a lot of these kids is just not an option,” Mr O’Leary said.
“We don’t want to replicate what has already failed these kids. We adopt a more holistic approach to the whole idea of school.
“It’s about teaching children that education is for everyone — not just for some.
“If you have no hope or ambition, you’re life is over, but these kids have hope and ambition and I would like to think that this centre has been a small part of that.”
The Life Centre works with children from parts of the city where the early school-leaving rate has topped 34%.
Some of its students were out of mainstream education for up to two years before their referral to the centre. Despite this, the centre boasted a 93% attendance rate last year.
But the funding crisis has forced the centre to stop accepting first or second-year students this year. Mr O’Leary said they have already had to turn 71 applicants away.
And despite the funding uncertainty, the staff have agreed to stick with the current student body to get them to their state exams.
The centre has arranged a series of crucial meetings with government representatives later this month.