National Guard

 

The
Challenge

Pushups, persistence and discipline give troubled teens a second chance in Guard's Youth ChalleNGe program

The Challenge

The ChalleNGe: A Chance

Guard's life-changing youth academies
offer hope through structure, support

Earlier this year 160 teens arrived at the Maryland National Guard's Freestate ChalleNGe Academy in Edgewood, Md., to begin a 17-month journey that for many will have lifelong effects. Part of the Guard's larger Youth ChalleNGe program, the Freestate Academy provides a pathway for 16-to-18-year old, "at-risk" teens to earn their GED certificate or high school diploma while also learning life and coping skills.

In simple terms, however, the program offers a chance, said Guard officials. For some who enter it, the program may be a second chance, while others may see it as their only chance. Or their last chance.

Either way, it offers a chance. A chance to find direction or discipline. A chance to find success and a chance to prepare for larger goals down the road. For some who seek out the program, simply finding a chance was the goal itself.

At Freestate — just as with each Youth ChalleNGe academy — a quasi-military approach to structure and discipline is used to build responsibility, accountability and a sense of purpose, said Jeff White — chief of the National Guard Bureau's Athletics and Youth Development division, which oversees the program.

While the goals and parameters of the program are set by the NGB, each academy tailors the specifics to meet its individual needs, said White, adding that academic standards and requirements at each academy are set by state and local education officials.

More than 140,000 teens have graduated from the program since its 1993 inception, with roughly 9,000 graduating each year from the 37 Youth ChalleNGe academies nationwide. Each one of those graduates volunteered to attend — Youth ChalleNGe cadets cannot be forced or mandated to attend the program, said White.

The program isn't easy. The days are long and the expectations high. The rules are many, the pushups frequent and cadre members, many of whom are current Guard members or retired military members, are ever-present to provide the daily structure, focus and discipline.

Not all who arrived at Freestate earlier this year will see the program through. Those who do, however, are more likely to pursue greater ambitions. Roughly 70 percent of cadets who graduate from Freestate are placed in jobs, pursue college, an apprenticeship or trade school in their post-graduate year, said Charles Rose, the program director at Freestate.

For those 160 teens who arrived at Freestate, getting there all starts with Zero Day, where the candidates—they won't be full-fledged cadets for two weeks—arrive and in-process. This series follows that class during their time in the 22-week residential phase—the first phase of the two-part program—from Zero Day through graduation day as they meet the challenges and go from candidates to cadets to graduates.

1st Sgt. Job Stringfellow provides direction to a newly-arrived candidate during in-processing at the academy.
Intensity meets seeming indifference as 1st Sgt. Job Stringfellow, a cadre member at the Maryland National Guard's Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, provides direction to a newly-arrived candidate during in-processing. Stringfellow's serious tone sets the stage for what’s expected of those in the program, which he reinforces by asking candidates if they're ready to come through "his" door.

The ChalleNGe: Zero Day

July 20, 2016 | Story and Photos by Army Staff Sgt. Darron Salzer, National Guard Bureau

Candidates at the academy wait in a holding area with heads buried in their student handbooks.
Candidates at the academy bury their heads in their student handbooks as they wait for additional instructions from cadre members. Downtime often means continued studying for candidates at the academy, even before they're officially accessioned into the program.

On a crisp winter morning, a slow trickle of teens in gray sweat suits began to line up outside a large, red brick building. They carried pillows under their arms and duffle bags over their shoulders. Some talked softly with parents and other family members; others stared blankly at one another, or at nothing at all. As the minutes ticked by, the building's closed doors only prolonged the suspense and uncertainty of what was to come.

None of them knew what to expect once those doors opened and they stepped inside for in-processing at the Maryland National Guard's Freestate ChalleNGe Academy. They also didn't know they would find themselves facing 1st Sgt. Job Stringfellow — an imposing, energetic, wide-shouldered man in a crisp, tan military-style uniform and black drill sergeant hat — who would greet each teen with a question: "Are you ready to come through my door?"

Stringfellow, who is responsible for the day-to-day structure at the academy, had other questions too.

"Where you from," he asked each teen who stood before him. Some stammered, others defiantly replied, but no matter the answer, his response stayed the same.

"That's where all the quitters come from," he said. "You come to me to quit?"

His questions and deliberate replies emphasized two things: This is a different world the teens were about to enter and that while there, he wasn't going to let them give up — even if they tried.

Joshua Griffin and other candidates rummage through their belongings during a shakedown inspection.
Joshua Griffin and other candidates lay out their belongings during an inspection to ensure candidates have all required items. Cadre members call out items and candidates respond by holding the items up high, confirming they have them before putting them in their duffel bags.

Stringfellow's imposing demeanor may have caused some to question their decision to enroll in the academy, part of the National Guard Bureau's larger Youth ChalleNGe program, an education and self-discipline program for "at-risk" youth conducted in a military-style environment.

Other teens, may not question the decision until tomorrow morning when they wake up at 5 a.m. to begin their daily routine, said Charles Rose, program director at the academy.

"It's often a big change from what they're used to," he said.

Each day will be structured similarly, beginning with early morning physical training. During their time at the academy they will attend GED preparation classes, create budgets, set future goals, participate in community service projects, sharpen their marching skills and work together to clean the facilities all with the expectation to do what they are told when they are told.

Once they complete the five-and-a-half month residential phase, the teens will spend another 12 months working with a mentor and academy staff to fulfill goals they set during the residential phase.

On that first morning though, the candidates — who won't become full-fledged cadets for another two weeks — were given a flurry of directions from in-processing staff. Go here. Go there. Sit down. Stand up. No talking. Dump your bag. Pack your bag. Do it again. There were no smiles or laughter as they completed in-processing procedures, many thinking of the months ahead and the tremendous emotions of saying goodbye to family members.

For Ronny Colindres, a candidate at the academy, those emotions became somewhat overwhelming, he said, adding he felt the academy represented his last opportunity to change his life.

"It's a lot of pressure because if you get put out then that's it, there's nowhere else to go," Ronny said. "You're done. I'm done forever."

Ronny, 18, said he was dropped from public school for repeating the ninth grade too many times and hopes that Freestate will not only provide him with the education he needs to be successful, but will also give him the direction he said he desperately wants in his life.

As the oldest of four children living with a single mother, he said much of his focus has been on helping to raise his youngest brother and sister and acting as a role model in their young lives.

"Getting kicked out of high school, dropping out, it sets a bad example for little siblings," he said, adding he's worried about the road it could lead his siblings down. "They start thinking it's good, since I did it they could do it too.

"I didn't want to set that example so I have to get my GED [certificate] or high school diploma. I have to set a good example for them. I have to be the role model."

The weight of carrying that around poured out as he said goodbye to those he loved most, with tears coming like a waterfall, he said.

Candidates stand in a hallway after being issued their first uniform item- an academy coat.
Candidates wait in a hallway in the academy building to be issued their first uniform item, an academy coat. For many candidates, the uniform is an important first step of their journey at the academy and represents the start of big changes to come.

"I'm a momma's boy and I'm really attached to my sister, my little brothers," Ronny said. "I couldn't stay away from them. They're like my, everything. So to be away from them for [almost] six months, it's hard on me. But I can't give up."

A determined spirit is what keeps his sights on graduation day.

"I committed myself to this and told myself that once I stepped off the bus and was facing the [academy] that I'm going to get through this — there's no backing out, no second chances," he said determinedly.

The same underlying drive to succeed is what also motivates Laneesha Johnson, who said public schools were not for her either.

"Nothing was structured," she said, "and I actually think that I need something to structure me, [or] guide me the right way, and public school was not doing that."

Laneesha, 17, has aspirations of becoming a culinary artist in the Navy and sees Freestate as the path to reaching her goal.

"When I left high school, my administrator … told me this would get me ready for the Navy," she said, referring to the military-style environment of the program. "The physical training is going to help me get myself together and waking up early is going to get me into [a] routine for the Navy."

Earning her high school diploma is the first step before her dreams can become a reality, said Laneesha, adding she feels good about coming to the academy.

"I knew what I was getting myself into," she said of the first day and having to say goodbye to her mom. "I figured it's the best thing for me. I'm going to get myself together, do the right thing and she'll be proud of me at the end. I'm on the right track."

Candidates get new haircuts, one of the first orders of business after arriving at the academy.
The buzz of clippers fills the room as candidates get the same short haircut, one of the first orders of business after arriving at the academy. Some candidates respond to the haircut with nervous laughter, while other candidates joke and tease each other about their new looks.

'Let's help these kids'

For Rose, the program director at Freestate, a little more than three years has passed since he found what he describes as his dream job with the academy. A retired Air Force master sergeant, he has worked with children for more than 30 years as a mentor, teacher or coach.

"If I can help a child … realize and achieve success, especially in life in general, then that is something that I'm about," Rose said, adding the ChalleNGe program cried out to him "let's help these kids."

"We need to be able to provide them that opportunity," he said. "In 20 years they could be our legislators, our congressmen, our senators or our president — you never know."

For Rose, the best part of Freestate is watching the teens grow from candidates to cadets, graduates and beyond.

"Once they get the first three or four weeks behind them, they are able to start making that change," Rose said.

Facilitating that change are the cadre members, many of whom are current or former members of the Guard, while others may have served in other military branches. They ensure the discipline, structure and order of the program is maintained and hold cadets accountable for their actions. They are also who the cadets will see and interact with most often during their time in residence at the academy.

That change continues as cadets go through classes preparing them to earn their GED certificate or to return to high school to earn their diploma, said Rose. They also learn life skills, such as how to prepare for a job interview, find a place to live or prepare a personal budget.

From there, they move on to job shadowing, which is when many realize how successful they can be and the light truly goes on, said Rose. That prepares them to work with the staff and a mentor of their choosing on a post-residential action plan.

Ricardo Ballenger steps off a bus outside the Freestate Academy.
Ricardo Ballenger balances moving quickly with keeping hold of his bags as he steps off a bus outside the Freestate Academy building. Cadre members stand nearby, ready to provide additional "encouragement" should Ballenger or other cadets lag behind or move too slow.

"The cadets lay the foundation, establish goals and they determine some of the things they want to do in their lives," Rose said. "You see them start to accomplish some of those goals and expand on them even more, not only in residence, but also in post-residence where they continue on."

The largest hurdle in the growth process for many teens at the academy is simply changing their attitudes, said Rose.

"The biggest problem we have is getting them to understand what they need to do to be successful, especially during the two-week acclimation phase," he said. "Until they get that, it's going to be hard for them."

Some cadets may not see college as an option, said Rose, but the need for an education or job training still exists for them to be successful once they return home.

For this class, all of that is still to come.

Back at the in-processing center, candidates filed out with their bags and were packed tightly into busses that brought them over to the academy building. As they stepped off those busses they saw, for the first time, what would be their home for the next 22 weeks.

One by one, they shuffled uneasily down the sidewalk and through the door. It was one of many doors they would have to choose to walk through — again and again — over the next several months, with only themselves to ask, "Are you ready to come through this door?"

The glow of streetlights contrast against the pre-dawn sky as cadre members lead cadets in morning physical fitness training.
The glow of streetlights contrast against the pre-dawn sky as cadre members lead cadets in morning physical fitness training, or PT. For many cadets, both the exercise program and the wake up time are new elements, but daily PT helps to build camaraderie and esprit de corps among cadets while upping their fitness levels, said cadre members.

The ChalleNGe: Settling In

July 27, 2016 | Story and Photos by Army Staff Sgt. Darron Salzer, National Guard Bureau

Raymond Colbert laces up his boots as he prepares for the day.
Raymond Colbert quietly laces up his boots as he prepares for the day. For cadets, the days are long, often beginning well before the sun is up, and include classes, reviewing work or taking care of assigned duties around the barracks.

The abrupt glare of a florescent light switching on streaked across the darkened room like lightning chasing away the night sky. Seconds later, locker doors slammed with a thunderous metallic crash, as the shrill cry of a whistle pierced the air. Just as suddenly, the stormy chaos was broken by a booming voice.

"Get out of bed," the voice commanded. "Get on line."

Startled, yet still barely awake, candidates at the Maryland National Guard's Freestate ChalleNGe Academy followed the voice's command and stumbled out of their bunks to line up in the hallway for morning roll call.

The early morning wake-up is something many of the candidates are still adjusting to. After roll call, as most brushed their teeth or changed into their gym clothes, a few candidates slunk back to their beds intent on just a few more minutes of sleep.

Those attempts were futile. The cadre members, who had awakened them with the crash of locker doors moments earlier, made sure of it. The thunder of metal-on-metal continued until all candidates were up and preparing for the day, even if they were unhappy about it.

Quinton Worthy tries his hand at marching his platoon as cadre members look on from behind.
Quinton Worthy, right, tries his hand at marching his platoon as cadre members look on from behind. Nearly anywhere the cadets go as a group — to class, meals and other functions — they march as a platoon. As the cadets progress in the program cadre members will often have them take on marching duties.
Tyshawn Delaine looks over full bags of dirty laundry as dryers hum in the barracks laundry room.
Tyshawn Delaine looks over full bags of dirty laundry as dryers hum in the barracks laundry room. Cadets must perform additional duties throughout their time at the academy. Some duties are simply assigned, while others require an interview with cadre giving cadets the experience of preparing for a job interview. For Tyshawn, this week meant he was on laundry duty for his platoon, making him responsible for ensuring his peers had clean clothes for the days ahead.

"I [don't] like waking up at 4:30, having people slamming my locker tellin' me to get up," said Jordan Wisdom, 16, a candidate from Glen Burnie, Md. "Waking up having to make four corners on my bed and to 'dress-right-dress your shoes.' I didn't know what that meant and they [the cadre] were just yellin' it in my face."

Adjusting to the regimented structure of the academy is often difficult for many candidates, said cadre members.

"The biggest challenge with the kids has been getting them up on time, learning how to march and having someone instruct them on what they need to do day-in and day-out," said Sgt. Andre Johnson, a cadre member at Freestate.

Jordan agreed that early on there were many parts about academy life that were hard for him.

"When you have someone coming up to you telling you 'You're not allowed to do that' and 'You're not allowed to do what you want;' I was frustrated," he said, adding that at home he usually did whatever he wanted.

His frustrations subsided, he said, when he realized there was a benefit to the academy structure. Since then, he has learned to remain calm when cadre members challenge him or hold him accountable for his actions.

"I wasn't going to get [anywhere] in this program if I keep on tryin' to fight it," Jordan said.

That doesn't mean it still hasn't been a challenge for him.

"At first it was hard for me to stay focused and want to stick with the program," he said. "Now it's a lot easier, because once you start following the rules and do what everybody asks you to do and don't show disrespect, they make it easier for you."

It's also allowed him to reflect on why he came to the academy and what it will take for him to graduate.

"I've been trying to keep my head up in here, trying to keep myself in order and trying to keep myself motivated to get through the program," Jordan said.

Fueling that motivation are his goals to make his mom proud and proving to her he can follow through with something, he said. Though, that's only the beginning.

"I want to get my high school diploma," he said. "From there I want to go to a community college, or at least get my associates [degree], move on to my four year degree, go into computer science and take care of my mother like she took care of me."

Cadets wait for the signal from cadre to sit and begin lunch in the academy dining facility.
Cadets wait for the signal from cadre to sit and begin lunch in the academy dining facility. Nearly everything at Freestate is structured, including meals, and cadets must follow specific protocols on moving through serving lines, when to sit and begin eating and even how to return their trays.

For now, though, Jordan's focus is on making it through the initial two weeks, which are designed to acclimate the teens to the basic structure and discipline expected of them during the five-and-a-half month resident phase at the academy. This is also the time when many teens are dropped from the program, often for failure to adapt to the standards, said cadre members.

After the first two weeks, candidates go through the Crossover Ceremony where they become cadets and officially begin the core of the program.

"From there they start academics and a variety of other things," said Charles Rose, program director at the academy, adding that the cadets' days will generally follow the same routine from here on out.

The day typically begins at 4:30 a.m. with organized physical fitness, and then barracks cleanup, before cadets are marched to breakfast. Afterward, they'll spend the next eight hours — two blocks of four hours with lunch in between — rotating through classes such as science, math, history and English.

There are also other subjects as well.

"Since this is a quasi-military environment they have leadership classes, military history … to get the fundamentals of what the military is," Jordan said.

These are not Jordan's favorites though.

"Math and science are the favorite parts of my day," he said. "With math, I always make sure I have all of my work and show all of my work so I can really understand how I'm supposed to do it."

It's a silver lining that Jordan said makes the days easier for him.

"I'm trying to look at the bright side of being here, and since they have subjects I like I might as well try to excel at them," he said.

Jordan said he also enjoys assisting other cadets who may have trouble with those subjects.

"I like helping people because you're changing their mindset from, 'I don't know how to do this' to 'I can do this,'" he said, adding he also tries to help his peers see the larger benefits of the academy.

Ronny Colindras keeps an eye on his squad members during evening roll call in the academy's barracks.
Assigned squad leader duties, Ronny Colindras keeps an eye on his squad members during evening roll call in the academy's barracks. As cadets move through the program they can be selected by cadre for leadership positions and are then responsible for ensuring those in their charge are on time and prepared throughout the day as well as informed of any changes to the schedule.

"If all a cadet sees is that they are being told what to do, that's not what this program is about," he said. "It's about teaching you discipline, integrity and all that stuff."

The program is challenging, said Jordan, and sticking through it requires paying attention and listening.

"If you just listen, [the cadre] won't get all up in your case," he said. "If they say 'Go this way' you go that way. If you ask why, they're just going to give you a harder time."

For some, listening to instructions from the cadre and others is often easier said than done.

"The challenge I've had to overcome is learning to listen to and follow the directions that have been given to me," said Tameara Watford, 17, a cadet from Baltimore. "I had a lot of problems at home with not listening and letting other people speak."

Jordan said he often tells peers like Tameara that he tries to see the deeper meaning behind what the cadre are telling him.

"I know that everything [the cadre] say is for a reason and not out of disrespect," he said. "It's advice. It's to help me, even if they're yelling in my face."

A cadet attempts a few minutes of extra sleep during time allotted for other activities.
A cadet attempts a few minutes of extra sleep during time allotted for other activities, which can often be a risky venture that ends with pushups. Cadre members keep a watchful eye to ensure the cadets are engaged and focused on the task at hand.

The cadre have noticed a change in Jordan since his first day at the academy.

"Prior to the Crossover Ceremony he was on the edge of being a problem," said Johnson, the cadre member. "Once he crossed over and got the uniform and was put into a leadership position, he's been completely night and day. He's taking control and command of the people in his squad and he's a tremendous young man."

As the cadets continue through the program, Jordan said he is looking forward to learning more about being a leader.

"The cadre told us that as we get further along in the program, we're going to have more responsibility," he said. "They'll be appointing certain cadets as leaders, like a platoon leader, to help run the program and make sure people are getting to class on time."

Jordan said he is looking forward to the opportunity to take on one of those positions.

"I know if I keep doing what I have to do as a cadet then it'll come," he said.

Now that he, Tameara and other cadets are settled in with the program, Jordan said everything he and his peers have endured thus far makes sense.

The glow of streetlights contrast against the pre-dawn sky as cadre members lead cadets in morning physical fitness training.
Cpl. Kurt Jones, a cadre member at the Maryland National Guard's Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, explains the academy's expectations to members of his platoon. The cadre at the academy are the primary guiding force for cadets and are responsible for building discipline and providing the academy's structured environment.

The ChalleNGe: The Cadre

August 3, 2016 | Story and Photos by Army Staff Sgt. Darron Salzer, National Guard Bureau

Jones reiterates to cadets that success at Freestate is incumbent on listening, thinking and using their minds, rather than simply reacting to situations.
Jones reiterates to cadets that success at Freestate is incumbent on listening, thinking and using their minds, rather than simply reacting to situations. For many cadre members, it's constructive coping strategies and positive methods of dealing with stress that are among the most important elements taught to cadets.

Sgt. Aaron Garrison sits at the end of a long, narrow hallway hovering over a binder of papers on his desk, catching up on paperwork. The sun won't be up for another two hours and the low hum of florescent lights is one of the few sounds heard as he looks at his watch. Garrison lingers, as if savoring the quiet.

The moment doesn't last — it never does.

Garrison stands and heads down the hall to begin the crash and bang that signals wake-up for cadets at the Maryland National Guard's Freestate ChalleNGe Academy.

Cadre members like Garrison train, care for, mentor and watch over the cadets of every class that cycles through the academy. It's a job that requires them to respond to myriad issues and make decisions in a moment's notice.

"You have to develop ways to handle things on the fly very, very quickly and in a very efficient manner," said Staff Sgt. John Stout, a cadre member like Garrison.

There isn't a special formula for what makes a great cadre member — their backgrounds are just as varied as the stars in the sky — but there is one attribute each cadre member at Freestate seems to have: passion.

Cpl. Ronald Williams checks the placement of a cadet's laundry bag
Cpl. Ronald Williams, right, a cadre member at the academy, checks the placement of a cadet's laundry bag while conducting an informal inspection of the barracks. Details matter, even with laundry bag placement, and the goal is for cadets to carry that same focus to other areas of their lives, said cadre members.
Master Sgt. Robert Triplett lists off to cadets the requirements needed for placement into a leadership role within their platoon.
Master Sgt. Robert Triplett lists off to cadets the requirements needed for placement into a leadership role within their platoon. Instilling leadership, discipline and the overarching structure are among the core tenets cadre members are responsible for at the academy.

"It takes a special kind of person to do what the cadre do here," said Charles Rose, the program director at Freestate. "Their passion permeates throughout the entire staff."

That passion means the cadre do everything they can to intervene in the lives of the cadets and help mold them into contributing members of their communities, Stout said.

"We work with kids that society has given up on," he said. "We work with kids that families have given up on [and] we work with kids that the kids themselves have given up on."

Some have labeled the teens as failures, said Stout, but that's not the way he sees it.

"I say these kids are under construction," he said. "Some of them come from broken families, some of them come from homes that aren't conducive to being successful. My job is to train them, get them to where they need to be and then send them out into society as productive citizens."

Stout joined the academy in 2004 after a staff member recruited him. At 24, he wasn't much older than the cadets he mentored back then.

"When I stepped through the door, I thought 'what am I getting myself into,'" he recalled, adding that despite that initial feeling, he knew he found his calling.

"What got me was my first cycle here," he said.

In that class was a cadet who was homeless and had been living on the streets.

"His case manager at the time basically brought him in and said this was his last chance," Stout said. "I saw him want more from this program than I have ever seen someone [want] to this day."

That particular cadet graduated from the program and went on to find additional successes and continues to thrive and excel, said Stout.

"I want to make that happen over and over again for all [of] these other kids," he said.

Getting cadets to that point is sometimes a long road, said Stout, adding that teaching cadets positive ways to express their emotions, especially anger and frustration, can be challenging.

Sgt. Patrick Falls steps in to settle a dispute between cadets
Sgt. Patrick Falls steps in to settle a dispute between cadets, while also ensuring they're focused on what they should be doing—preparing for the next day. The ability to handle a variety of issues in a moment's notice, and make quick decisions on the fly, is one of the key attributes required of the job, said cadre members.

For Sgt. Drisana Lynch, also a cadre member, that means letting cadets express their feelings, while working with them on constructive coping strategies.

"These kids have valid points and I always tell them that they have valid feelings," Lynch said. "However, how they choose to express them is not always OK and it's not gonna work in the real world."

Lynch said she tries to empower the cadets to come up with solutions, rather than simply reacting to the problem. Though that often comes after giving the cadets corrective training first, usually in the form of pushups or flutter kicks.

"I give them corrective physical training to let them know that the way they're acting out is not acceptable," she said.

The intent, Lynch said, is for cadets to think about the punishment before similar situations occur in the future. Tough love is what the cadre call it.

"I always say 'you're not going to like me, but you'll love me at the end of the program,'" Stout said. He added that former cadets have told him it was months or years before they fully realized the reason for his stern attitude and how they benefited from it.

Pushups and 'bear crawls' are the order for Rickaun Morris, center, and Craig Osborne after failure to follow cadre members' instructions
Under the watchful eye of an academy cadre member, pushups and "bear crawls" are the order for Rickaun Morris, center, and Craig Osborne after failure to follow cadre members' instructions. Pushups and other exercises are one form of corrective physical training cadre members use to reinforce academy standards while building discipline and attention to detail in cadets.

Being disliked isn't the most difficult part of the job though.

"The most challenging thing is how much time [the cadre] give up with their own families to be here," Lynch said.

Stout agreed, and stressed that it's not a typical 9-to-5 job.

"The kids are there 24 hours a day," he said, adding that "somebody has got to be there with them."

Somebody is, in fact, always there.

From the moment cadets wake up, cadre members are there. They make sure the cadets prepare for the day, march them to and from class and every meal. Along the way the cadre address any issues that may arise and ensure cadets adhere to academy standards while progressing appropriately toward graduation.

"In the beginning, you're constantly saying the same things to the cadets over and over and over," Triplett said. "You know what the end result of all of this is — the kids don't know — and you want them to be able to lead themselves, understand structure and have discipline."

Those three items — leadership, structure and discipline — are among the overarching critical skills taught to cadets. They're also lessons Triplett said he learned well while serving in the military.

Sgt. Aaron Garrison looks on as Master Sgt. Robert Triplett reviews the weekly academy schedule
Sgt. Aaron Garrison, left, looks on as Master Sgt. Robert Triplett reviews the weekly academy schedule and other administrative items with cadre members. Academy cadre are present around the clock to provide oversight and direction for cadets no matter the time.

"I transferred to a lot of different units," he said. "It taught me to be able to adapt and that's what you have to do here — adapt."

Lynch learned similar lessons as a police officer, she said, giving her the ability to interact with a variety of people, make split decisions and think creatively. Those skills easily apply to her role at the academy, where she uses them to "make a difference in somebody's life somehow."

Watching as cadets grow and change is the most rewarding part of the job, said both Lynch and Triplett.

"This is more rewarding than anything else I could be doing," Triplett said. "I know that we can't save every cadet, but knowing that these kids graduate and go on to become successful, it gets me into work every day."

For Stout, it's the privilege of being part of graduation day.

"I've seen it twice a year for 12 years and it's just simply amazing," he said. "There's something that's magical about every single one."

1st Sgt. Job Stringfellow talks with Cadet Jordan Wisdom
Encouragement and motivation are key as 1st Sgt. Job Stringfellow, the academy commandant and head of the cadre, talks with Cadet Jordan Wisdom, a result of Jordan's recent attitude and actions at Freestate. The goal is to keep cadets focused and on the right track, said Stringfellow, which sometimes means a one-on-one talk to address issues and work toward positive solutions.

However, graduation means only the first phase is complete. There are still another 12 months of the program to go, where cadets continue to work with mentors and academy staff as they move toward their goals in life.

"The cadets still need some positive motivation to move forward," said Stout. "We always tell the parents the job is never done, just like our job."


Cadets march single file into the academy's classroom building to begin the school day.
Cadets from the Maryland National Guard's Freestate ChalleNGe Academy march single file into the academy's classroom building to begin the school day. Academics are a key element of Freestate with cadets attending classes in a variety of subjects to prepare them to earn their high school diploma.

The ChalleNGe: Academics

August 10, 2016 | Story and Photos by Army Staff Sgt. Darron Salzer, National Guard Bureau

Josh Barlow, a social studies teacher at Freestate, goes over the history of the Great Depression during class at the academy. The challenges Freestate teachers face are similar to schools elsewhere — keeping students engaged in the material — but the academy structure is designed to eliminate outside distractions, with some cadets improving by five grade levels over 15 weeks, said academy teachers.

The low morning light streamed through the windows of Rebecca Blue's classroom at the Maryland National Guard's Freestate ChalleNGe Academy. She switched on the overhead projector and shuffled through graded assignments as it hummed to life.

She then wrote the morning's instructions and objectives on the classroom whiteboard, the marker producing a faint squeak with each letter. As she finished, the rhythmic stride of cadets marching to class could be heard — along with the cadence called to keep them in step.

The cadets marched single file into the classroom and toward another day of "academic excellence," one of eight core competencies required for graduation.

Other competencies include physical fitness, life and job skills, health and hygiene, responsible citizenship, leadership and service to community.

For many of the academy teachers, academic excellence is the cornerstone the other competencies are built on.

Christopher Ramirez, an academy cadet, looks over a test booklet during an exam at the academy. Among the first tests cadets take at Freestate is one that assesses their current education level. Near the end of the 22-week residential phase, cadets retake that test and must show marked improvement to meet the academy's academic excellence requirement and graduate.
Lynia Ligon, right, an English and writing teacher at the academy, reviews work with a cadet after class. In addition to help from teachers, tutoring is also available to cadets from their mentors or volunteers who come to the academy once a week. Cadets must earn that tutoring time through class participation, homework completion and following directions from staff and cadre.

"The overall mission of Freestate is to create productive citizens, and you can't create productive citizens without some type of education," said Blue, the lead academic instructor at the academy.

The classes taught at the academy prepare cadets to earn their high school diploma, and include classes in science, math, social studies, literature and writing.

Before cadets go "back to school" at Freestate, their current education level is assessed.

"Some cadets come to Freestate barely able to read or having never thought they would attend college; while others are college-ready, but failed out of high school for whatever reason," Blue said.

Near the end of the 22-week residential phase cadets must retake the same assessment test. In order to graduate, Blue noted, they must show marked academic improvement.

"We have some kids who improve by four or five grade levels in 15 weeks," she said. "It's impressive."

That academic rebirth is no accident. Blue and other instructors work with each cadet to identify where help is needed most and tailor their lesson plans accordingly.

"It takes a special type of educator to do that because you have to get the kids interested in learning again," Blue said.

Tim Jackson, the science teacher at the academy, agreed.

"A lot of times, it's a challenging task," he said. "It's up to the teacher to make it exciting and to draw the attention [of] the young individuals who are involved."

Hands-on science experiments are one method Jackson said he uses to engage students. Music is another and since many of the cadets listen to hip-hop and rap music, Jackson said he often tries to find an educational rap song related to the day's lesson.

"You might not think they're listening, but they hear every word," Jackson said of the rap songs he finds. "I try to do that at the beginning of all my lessons."

Doing homework, taking tests and sitting through class can be difficult for some cadets, especially those who have been out of school for a while, said Blue.

Cadets at the academy pack up their books and prepare to move to their next class as those appointed squad leader duties gather up papers to turn in. Cadet leadership duties carries over to the classroom as well and responsibility for certain classroom tasks is often delegated by teachers to cadet squad leaders.

"Here, they have to do those things," Blue said. "It's not an option."

Keeping the students focused is key, she said.

"We remove all of the distractions they had in [public] school and start with the basics, trying to get through as much as possible in 15 weeks," Blue said.

D'wight Lucas, a cadet at the academy, said he would often hang out with friends rather than do his homework.

"I feel like you always have a choice, but coming here forces you to make smart decisions," he said. "You can choose to hang out in other rooms and be silly, or stay in your room and study. I chose to study because it was only going to be beneficial to me."

According to Lucas, the cadre often tell cadets to take advantage of the education Freestate offers as, in the end, the cadets are the ones responsible for their own future.

"I feel like they really changed my way of thinking, in terms of prioritizing what I needed to do," he said.

With a steady movement of her whisk, Laneesha Johnson, left, a Freestate cadet, mixes muffin batter during a culinary arts vocational training class at the academy. Cadets can elect to take vocational classes in the culinary arts, automotive repair or barbering and cosmetology, which are designed to help them with employment or provide credit toward continued training once they graduate. For Laneesha, an avid cook at home with aspirations to become a chef in the Navy, the culinary classes are a key part of her post-residential plan.

That sense of responsibility is often reinforced in other ways while cadets are in the classroom. For Jackson, that means leaving the squad leaders in charge of the cadets, just like they would be outside of class.

"I make sure they take on that responsibility the right way," he said. "That's the job they have, being in that squad leader position, until they are relieved of that duty."

Watching the cadets to grow and tackle new concepts, said Blue, is one of her favorite things.

"It's pretty amazing to see how well they progress," she said. "We always tell them that whatever you put in is what you're going to get out of it. Some of them take that to heart."

For some cadets, that translates to taking advantage of additional tutoring available from their mentors or volunteers who come to the academy once a week. Those sessions help reinforce the classroom lessons, said Blue, but it's also something cadets must earn through doing homework, class participation and following directions of staff and cadre.

In addition to the academic program, cadets can also elect to attend additional classes in one of three vocational trades, which can help with employment once they graduate or give them credit toward continued training.

At Freestate academics often extend beyond the classroom. Overall education and preparation are stressed, which for Jabrael Ferguson means reviewing a book on military cadences in preparation for marching his fellow cadets.
Troy Stouffer, left, and Corchaun Ferrell, work together in the academy barracks to complete a homework assignment. For some cadets, homework assignments weren't a priority before coming to the academy. At Freestate the day includes time dedicated specifically to the task, with cadre present to ensure cadets are focused on their work.

"The vocational program ties into two core components of Freestate — life skills and job skills," said Karilynn Dunmeyer, the recruiting, placement and mentoring supervisor at the academy.

The vocational trades program is not mandatory and those who do not participate have other opportunities to master the academy's life and job skills requirements.

For Laneesha Johnson, a cadet at the academy with aspirations of becoming a Navy chef, the culinary arts program offered at Freestate is an important element to her post-residential plan. An avid cook at home, she said the culinary training has allowed her to expand her skill set.

"We've made a couple different things that I personally would never have thought of making," she said, adding the classes are something she looks forward to.

"We actually [get] to relax and have fun, cook and actually talk to each other," Laneesha said of being away from the rigors of daily academy life while in the kitchen.

The classes are also an opportunity that she sees as giving her a leg up with her plans for the Navy, she said.

That's the intent, said Dunmeyer.

"When they go into the post-residential [phase] this helps them with placement, and our programs give them the opportunity to continue with the trades," she said. "We're trying to create successful citizens, and this is another step for them to go out and become successful citizens."

Jackson agreed, adding that he stresses to the cadets that education is a pathway to other opportunities.

"I always tell the kids here they have to fight the power of ignorance," he said. "They can win. They just have to make that effort."


Charles Rose, left, director of the Maryland National Guard’s Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, looks on as Ronny Colindres, right, embraces academy staff members as he accepts his diploma during academy graduation ceremonies at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore. For the graduates, the day marks the end of the residential phase and the beginning of the 12-month post-residential phase of the program, where cadets work with their mentors and academy staff to meet long term goals they set for themselves during the residential phase. Charles Rose, left, director of the Maryland National Guard’s Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, looks on as Ronny Colindres, right, embraces academy staff members as he accepts his diploma during academy graduation ceremonies at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore. For the graduates, the day marks the end of the residential phase and the beginning of the 12-month post-residential phase of the program, where cadets work with their mentors and academy staff to meet long term goals they set for themselves during the residential phase.

The ChalleNGe: Graduation

August 17, 2016 | Story and Photos by Army Staff Sgt. Darron Salzer, National Guard Bureau

Malik Thompson knocks out pushups as Sgt. Drisana Lynch, right, a cadre member at the academy, keeps an eye on cadets while waiting for the start of graduation ceremonies. Graduation day doesn’t mean a reprieve from the rules, or the consequences that come from ignoring a cadre member’s instructions. Malik Thompson knocks out pushups as Sgt. Drisana Lynch, right, a cadre member at the academy, keeps an eye on cadets while waiting for the start of graduation ceremonies. Graduation day doesn’t mean a reprieve from the rules, or the consequences that come from ignoring a cadre member’s instructions.

A contagious energy floated through Baltimore's Fifth Regiment Armory, electrifying the semi-hushed conversations of the large group gathered in the armory's expansive drill hall. There was a joyful buzz as people shuffled to their seats, some looking around in anticipation and others smiling and taking it all in.

Cadets from the Maryland National Guard's Freestate ChalleNGe Academy felt it too as they lined up in a nearby stairway. Their raucous laughter and amped up conversations echoed from the stairway's tiled walls as cadre members stepped in with quick reminders to settle down.

Containing that sort of energy on this, of all days, was difficult for many of the cadets. Today was the day they had been working toward and the culmination of 22 weeks of pushups, early mornings, non-stop schoolwork and ever-present cadre members. Today was their day—graduation day.

With a sharp command from cadre, the cadets marched into the drill hall past parents, family members and friends, sounding off one last cadence and stealing glances as they paraded passed loved ones before taking their seats.

Excitement and emotions run high as Laneesha Johnson, right, shares a celebratory hug with fellow cadet Jada Estep as the two wait behind the scenes for graduation ceremonies to begin. Excitement and emotions run high as Laneesha Johnson, right, shares a celebratory hug with fellow cadet Jada Estep as the two wait behind the scenes for graduation ceremonies to begin. Christopher Ramirez, left, and D'wight Lucas, both members of the Freestate Academy’s cadet honor guard, take part in honor guard duties during their class’s graduation ceremony. The distinctive uniforms denote honor guard membership, which also gives cadets another leadership opportunity at the academy. Christopher Ramirez, left, and D'wight Lucas, both members of the Freestate Academy’s cadet honor guard, take part in honor guard duties during their class’s graduation ceremony. The distinctive uniforms denote honor guard membership, which also gives cadets another leadership opportunity at the academy.

"The last day was so exhilarating," said Ronny Colindres, an academy cadet. "Everyone was so excited. Everyone was singing, everyone was happy."

Ronny noted how many more smiles he saw on the other cadets compared to their first day 22 weeks earlier, adding it was a remarkable sight.

"On our last day, the mood, the aura, was so happy and cheerful," he said

Graduation is also an emotional day for Charles Rose, the academy director.

"There's so much [excitement] here and you just feel overwhelmed with pride and joy for what these kids have accomplished," he said, reflecting on what many of the cadets were like when they first came to the program.

"Some of them came in very bold, and they thought they knew what [to expect] but they really didn't comprehend what they were about to experience," said Rose, adding many newly-arrived cadets were apprehensive or scared.

Master Sgt. Robert Triplett, the lead cadre instructor, agreed and said some cadets began with a rough start.

"A lot of them were withdrawn and didn't know how to speak up or express themselves," Triplett said. "If they did express themselves, a lot of them did it negatively."

The initial two-week acclimation phase of the program was as a wake-up call for many of those cadets, said Rose, adding that the change to a very structured environment resulted in complaints from many cadets, as it does with nearly every class.

"Waking up at five o'clock in the morning will do that to you," he said, emphasizing that the structure serves a larger purpose of building discipline in the cadets as well as keeping them focused on the task at hand.

"As they've transitioned over the [past] 22 weeks, slowly but surely we saw the lights start to flicker and then to go on," said Rose.

Each cadet, stressed Rose, has changed for the better.

"When they come across [the stage], you shake their hand and look them in the eye and you can see a different person than what we saw 154 days ago," Rose said, adding many stand more confident in themselves and their abilities, while others have a more solid sense of who they are and a strong focus on the future.

The parents of D'wight Lucas, an academy cadet, stand to be recognized during graduation ceremonies. D'wight was one of two cadets during the ceremony to make commencement speeches, sharing with those in attendance his personal story of what lead him to Freestate, how the academy has changed him and his plans for the future. The parents of D'wight Lucas, an academy cadet, stand to be recognized during graduation ceremonies. D'wight was one of two cadets during the ceremony to make commencement speeches, sharing with those in attendance his personal story of what lead him to Freestate, how the academy has changed him and his plans for the future.

As part of the graduation ceremony, cadets stood at key moments as a way to mark their future plans. Some had aims for college or trade school, while others intended to enter the military or go directly into the work force. No matter their individual plans, more importantly, said Rose, every cadet had a plan.

"That's huge," he said, adding that at the start of the program many cadets had no future plans or sense of how to move forward if they did have a goal.

"We have assisted each cadet with either getting a job, getting into the military, getting into college or something along those lines," said Rose, emphasizing the graduating cadets have been given the tools to succeed.

"It's now up to them to take what they've learned here … and apply that to life," he said.

Alexis Head, a cadet at the Freestate Academy, gives a commencement speech as part of the ceremony. Alexis, along with fellow cadet D’Wight Lucas, shared her personal story of triumph and success with the packed crowd of family, peers and mentors. Alexis Head, a cadet at the Freestate Academy, gives a commencement speech as part of the ceremony. Alexis, along with fellow cadet D’Wight Lucas, shared her personal story of triumph and success with the packed crowd of family, peers and mentors. Army Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, left, the adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, congratulates Laneesha Johnson on graduating from the academy. Army Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, left, the adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, congratulates Laneesha Johnson on graduating from the academy.

That's one of the overarching tenets of the program.

"The thing we want them to understand is that life is not a straight and narrow road with no road blocks," said Rose. "You're going to experience roadblocks, you're going to experience hazards, but the question is 'how do you get above and beyond that to where you need to be?'"

For many academy cadets, that starts with a high school diploma. Of the graduating cadets, 40 percent earned their diploma, something many in the class may not have been able to do outside of the program, said Rose.

"They were either expelled from school and could not go back, or they were off track to graduate and by the time they got back on track … they may have been too old to get their high school diploma," he said.

Those cadets who did not earn their diploma during the residence phase will have the opportunity to retake the GED exam and earn their diplomas at a later date.

Graduates will now begin the 12-month post-residential phase of the program, where they will work toward meeting the goals they outlined during the residential phase. Both their mentors and academy staff will work with them to ensure they're on track.

"We will track them very, very closely for the next 12 months and their mentors will work with them as well," said Rose. "Between their life coping skills, their mentors and the case managers working with them, they have a much better opportunity to experience success and to succeed than they had when they came here five and a half months ago."

For Ronny Colindres, the memories and emotions of that first day are still vivid.

"The first day, I admit, was very terrifying," he said. "I remember the day before I came, I was nervous, scared, shaking because I was coming into something new. I automatically hated it, right off the bat. Everything."

Over time, however, the program helped him learn a few things about himself.

"I honestly thought that I would never be a leader," he said. "I used to think that I was just the kid in the back of the classroom, quiet. But, I'm a kid that likes to make a stand, be heard and be a voice of the people. I'm definitely a leader."

Ronny hopes to use those skills as an aircraft mechanic.

"It's going to be hard, but the things that are always worth it are always going to be hard," he said.

Going through Freestate was tough, Ronny said, but sticking through it meant achieving one of his goals: earning his high school diploma.

High school diploma in hand, Christopher Ramirez, right, is all emotions as Cpl. Kurt Jones, an academy cadre member, congratulates and praises him on his accomplishments. Ramirez was among the roughly 40 percent of his class to earn their diploma through the academy. Those cadets who did not earn their diploma during the residence phase will have the opportunity to retake the GED exam and earn their diplomas at a later date. High school diploma in hand, Christopher Ramirez, right, is all emotions as Cpl. Kurt Jones, an academy cadre member, congratulates and praises him on his accomplishments. Ramirez was among the roughly 40 percent of his class to earn their diploma through the academy. Those cadets who did not earn their diploma during the residence phase will have the opportunity to retake the GED exam and earn their diplomas at a later date.

"Today will be the first day that I can actually be a role model for my brothers and sisters," he said. "I'll be able to impact them more."

Alexis Head, another cadet from the academy, said thanks to the academy her future looks brighter.

"Being at Freestate has made me more mature and given me a whole new mindset," she said, adding that she hopes to obtain her certified nursing assistant certification.

Graduation day marked a beginning for many of the cadets.

"I feel like this is the beginning of my life," Ronny said.

For D'Wight Lucas, another academy cadet, it's a start that took him awhile to realize.

"You can literally do anything you set your mind to as long as you devote yourself to it," he said. "It just took me some time to realize I had it in me."