Launched in 1993 as a small, five-year demonstration project designed by the U.S. Defense Department’s National Guard Bureau to “reclaim the lives of young people,” a decade of permanent federal funding has allowed the ChalleNGe program to grow to 33 sites operating in 27 states and Puerto Rico.
According to its website, www.ngycp.org, the program has graduated more than 85,000 participants.
Participants must be between the ages of 16 and 18, have dropped out of or been expelled from school, be unemployed, drug-free and, at most, only peripherally involved in the justice system. Although both males and females can apply, 80 percent of the youth the program serves are males.
“Each program recruits a little differently,” said Dan Bloom, director of MDRC’s evaluation of the ChalleNGE program.
“They tend to go out … and hold community meetings – information sessions – around the state, where they get parents and kids to come learn about the program. They get a lot of referrals from school guidance counselors on kids who are dropping out or about to drop out.”
Youth cannot be ordered into the program by a court or other institution; participation must be voluntary.
Each site follows essentially the same 17-month program structure: a two-week pre-ChalleNGe phase consisting of orientation and assessment, a 20-week residential phase, and a one-year post-residential phase.
The initial assessment introduces youth to a quasi-military program style that focuses on teamwork, close order drill, a code of conduct, leadership skills and physical fitness training, according to the study.
Youths who successfully complete this phase become “cadets,” live on-site, usually at a military base, become members of platoons and squads, and wear military-style uniforms and haircuts.
The residential phase of the program is structured around eight core youth development components: leadership, responsible citizenship, service to community, life-coping skills, physical fitness, health and hygiene, job skills and academic excellence. Cadets also work with staff members to line up acceptable post-residential “placements” – employment, continuing education or non-compulsory military service.
Rare among residential programs, the post-residential phase of the ChalleNGE program provides structured mentoring for a full year to youth beginning their placements and returning to their communities.
The program’s $14,000 funding level per participant has not changed since the early 1990s: 60 percent of the cost is paid by the federal government and the remaining 40 percent is paid by the state where the program is located, according to the study.
What They Looked For
Although earlier examinations of the internal data kept by the ChalleNGe program sites suggested the program was successful, no rigorous scientific evaluation had been conducted that could isolate the effects of the program on its participants.
In this case, program officials, researchers and some of the biggest funders in the youth development field wanted to know if the life outcomes of youth who participate in the ChalleNGe program are significantly different from the life outcomes of similar youth who don’t participate in the program.
The prerequisite for a random assignment evaluation of the ChalleNGe program was “more applicants than slots,” Bloom said.
During the 2005-06 academic year, each time a participating ChalleNGe site recruited a new class of cadets, a lottery decided who was admitted to the program when the numbers of applicants exceeded the number of program slots by 25. Those not admitted were assigned to the control group.
Ultimately, about 3,000 youths entered the study. The majority of participants were 17-year-old, male U.S. citizens. Forty-one percent were white and 40 percent were African-American; most of the remainder were Hispanic. More than 40 percent lived in single-parent households; 21 percent lived with a parent and step-parent and 23 percent lived with both parents. More than eight in 10 had been suspended from school at least once, and about half said they made mostly Ds and Fs in school. Nearly one-third indicated they were special education students.
About two-thirds of the youth assigned to the program group were enrolled in the residential phase of the program, and about one-half graduated from the program. Historically, each site expects an enrollee attrition rate of 20 percent. The attrition rate of the study’s enrollee cohort was 22 percent.
At nine months post-enrollment, researchers administered surveys by phone to 648 youths from the program group and 370 from the control group.
The survey was 25 questions and took about 10 minutes to complete.
Measured outcomes included whether participants had earned their high school diplomas or GEDs; whether they were enrolled in an academic or job training program or were working full- or part-time; whether they had been arrested, convicted or imprisoned since their enrollment in the study; and if they felt healthy, were overweight or obese, and whether they felt they had a high or low capacity to deal with life’s challenges.
What They Found
The results were stunningly significant.
Educational Attainment – Almost half (46 percent) of the ChalleNGe participants had earned their high school diplomas or GEDs at the nine-month mark, compared with only 10 percent of the control group.
Current Status – While 56 percent of the control group had returned to high school or GED classes at the time of the survey, only 31 percent of the program group had done so. Instead, the program group was more likely than the control group to have moved past high school to enrollment in college (11 per cent versus 3 percent), job training (14 percent versus 10 percent) or full-time employment (31 percent versus 21 percent).
Criminal Justice – Significantly fewer program youths than control youths had been arrested (14 percent compared with 20 percent), convicted (7 percent versus 11 percent) or imprisoned (11 percent versus 19 percent) at the time of the survey.
Health – More program youths than control youths rated their overall health as very good or excellent (77 percent versus 68 percent), and fewer program youths had Body Mass Index ratings that indicated they were obese (8 percent compared with 13 percent).
In addition, the pattern of responses to several statements on the survey about a participant’s self-efficacy “showed that program youth were more likely than control youth to feel a high sense of self-efficacy” (11 percent versus 7 percent), and less likely to feel a low sense of self-efficacy (11 percent versus 20 percent).
Sixteen of the 19 measures were statistically significant, showing positive increases or decreases for the program group of at least 10 percent. The greatest difference was 28 percent, involving the number of participants earning a high school diploma or GED.
“It’s always good to see big impacts,” Bloom said, laughing. “The question, like with anything else, is what the pattern looks like as we track them further. But it’s definitely a good start. It’s just what we hoped they would have looked like at this point in the follow-up period.”