Objective: Help at-risk youth obtain GEDs and develop life skills.
In a Nutshell: This 22-week residential program uses a quasi-military regimen. Participants wake up at 5:30 a.m. to clean the barracks and exercise, then spend most of the day in classes about computers, life skills, and teamwork and leadership. Evening programs include tutoring and Impact, a college prep system conducted with volunteers from West Virginia University. The youths get one year of mentoring after graduating.
When and Where: Kingwood, W.Va., at the U.S Army National Guard training site. One session starts in January, and the other in July.
Who Runs It: The academy is part of the National Guard Bureau’s Youth ChalleNGe program, which supports 29 programs for at-risk youth in 24 states. Challenge Academy Director Hugh Dopson, an educator and 22-year military veteran, has overseen the academy’s staff (now at 41) since 1993.
Cost: The academy’s annual budget is $2.8 million. Participation is free.
Who Pays: Under the formula for all Youth ChalleNGe programs, the federal government pays 60 percent and the state government pays the rest.
Youth Served: Participants are from 16 to 18 years old, are all high school dropouts, and are at the academy voluntarily. To be admitted, a youth must be deemed “at-risk,” cannot have a felony offense conviction or pending case, and must pass a drug test. About 70 youths graduate in each session. Families are told about the academy primarily by social workers, probation officers and school officials.
Obstacles: “The major problem continues to be getting the word out,” Dopson says. The National Guard Youth Foundation has contracted with public relations firms, and Dopson hopes the increase in radio and newspaper ads will boost enrollment.
Youth Turn-On: Some of the more enjoyable outdoor activities, including an obstacle course, rapelling tower, high- and low-rope courses, and camping expeditions
Youth Turn-Off: Smoking is banned, which irritates some youth. Complaints abound about the strategy of mass punishment (disciplining a whole platoon for one person’s mistake), which Dopson says develops teamwork.
Research Shows: A 2003 report on the impact of the National Youth ChalleNGe Program is available from AOC Solutions, at www.aocsolutions.com. The report says 65 percent of graduates reported being placed in a job, school or in the military a year after graduation, and that the program’s daily cost per youth is one-fifth the cost of incarceration. Dopson hasn’t done a local study, but the program does track graduates during their one year of mentoring. During that year, he says, 85 to 90 percent of the youth are “productive: in school, employed or in the military.”
What Still Gets in the Way: The program is funded to graduate 100 youths per session, but Dopson says he needs to start with about 150 to achieve that. (The July session began with 123.) “It’s a very demanding program. … Some kids just aren’t ready to change their lives,”
Dopson says. “The kids we deal with have learned how to cope in society, and one [way] is to quit when it gets too hard. You just stop doing it. So we’re fighting that coping tool they’ve learned.”