ARLINGTON, Va. – Terkia Hosley watched from the edge of a courtyard in front of the Maryland National Guard Freestate ChalleNGe Academy as a teenage boy half-heartedly did pushups. Others filed past, as the cadet arched his back in search of relief. Hosley, unaware of the actual infraction that resulted in the pushups, wasn’t alone. Cadre members were nearby, keeping an eye on the pushup progression.
“That boy is always in trouble,” Hosley said to herself, shaking her head in a he-should-know-better sort of way.
For Hosley, a ChalleNGe cadet, the scene was all too familiar. At one point, it could easily have been her doing pushups.
“It was a big change coming here,” she said. “At first I was off the hook. I didn’t think I’d make it.”
But Hosley did make it. She will graduate from the academy that provides 16-to-18 year old, at-risk high school dropouts, the opportunity to earn either their GED certificate or high school diploma and enhances their opportunities to succeed.
“Many of the kids will come here because they’ve dropped out of school, been expelled, had problems at school with fighting, and even conflicts with teachers or family members,” said Charlie Rose, director of the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy. “We help them identify solutions for the problems they have and give them the opportunity to commit to the program, to commit to themselves, and turn their lives around.”
The Freestate Academy is part of the National Guard’s larger Youth ChalleNGe Program and is one of 37 ChalleNGe academies throughout the country. To date, more than 140,000 youths have graduated since the program began in 1993.
“We’re averaging over 9,000 graduates a year now from the 37 programs,” said Jeff White, the chief of the National Guard Bureau Athletics and Youth Development, which oversees the Youth ChalleNGe program. “And we have two more programs aiming to come online this year.”
The concept of ChalleNGe resulted from several studies done to determine ways to engage those who had dropped out of high school or who were having trouble with school and in danger of expulsion or dropping out, said White.
“They were trying to determine how best to take some of these disenfranchised students and empower them to become successful young adults,” he said. “The research determined a quasi-military discipline and structure was the best way to turn these young people around and enable them to find a successful path in life.”
Enter the National Guard.
“It was determined that the National Guard was the best, most efficient fit for it,” said White. “They’re well established and experienced in providing that military structure and discipline. The National Guard also has a presence in every zip code throughout our great nation and, since Guard members are essentially volunteers by nature, what better pool from which to acquire mentors and role models for these misguided youth?”
Plus, White added, as a community-based organization, the Guard already had many relationships in place at the state and local level.
“It was a structure that could be used to implement it without changing the world,” he said.
For many cadets, though, the 17-month-long program has, indeed, changed their world for the better, said both White and Rose.
The program is broken into two phases. The first is a 22-week, in-residence phase that focuses on teaching academics, life and job skills. That’s followed by a yearlong, non-resident phase where cadets work with a mentor from their community. They are also required to check in and work with their ChalleNGe academy staff to track their progress to ensure they are reaching pre-determined, follow-on goals the cadets develop and outline during the program’s residential phase.
“You can’t just place the cadets in a program where they’re isolated for 5 ½ months and the only people they talk with are their instructors and cadre, then release them with a ‘See you later. Good luck!’ said White. We had to ask ourselves, ‘What’s next?’ for these youth.”
The mentors assist during that transition, but it’s during the residential phase where the biggest changes are usually seen in the cadets.
“We have a tight and stringent training schedule,” said Rose. “They’re up at 5 a.m. and go to bed at 9 p.m. In between the cadre are making sure the cadets stay on track with their very structured routine. They hold them accountable.”
The cadre at the academies are usually made up of Guard members or retired Guard members.
“The cadre members are like training instructors or quasi drill sergeants,” said Rose. “The cadre are with them 24/7 and require them to shape up, listen up, and comply with the instructions they’ve been given.”
Cadets are also required to wear a uniform, conduct physical training, respond quickly when given instructions and are marched in formation to and from class, meals and other events.
“We’re not military, but we use the foundations, principles, values, discipline, and structure of a military environment,” said Rose. “The cadre oversee that environment in the program. They are the backbone of what we do here.”
While a military structure and environment is used and Guard members are present as cadre, ChalleNGe does not push cadets toward a military career, White noted. Cadets have sole discretion on choosing their appropriate career path after graduating from the ChalleNGe program.
“Our goal is not focused on creating a military pipeline,” said White. “We’re trying to create productive, successful citizens who go back home and do good things.”
While at the academy cadets attend a variety of core classes to focus and prepare them to either earn their GED certificate, attain a high school diploma, or return to high school.
The specific academic requirements, and whether cadets earn a GED certificate, high school diploma or credits toward returning to a traditional high school, are based on state education department requirements and vary between ChalleNGe academies.
“We establish minimum tasks and standards for each of the eight core components that include academic excellence, job skills, health and hygiene, responsible citizenship, service to the community, leadership/followership, physical fitness, and life coping skills,” White said.
To reinforce some of those skills at the Freestate Academy, cadets must complete an application and prepare for a formal interview.
“The goal is to provide them with an experience very similar to an actual job interview,” said Rose. Many academies do this through mock interviews where the cadets complete a face-to-face interview.
Over the past 20-plus years the program has been an astounding success, said White, adding that the vast majority of graduates go on to earn high school diplomas and other degrees, specialized certifications or become active in the community, job market or other fields.
“It’s hard to hide that kind of success,” said White.
Roughly 70 percent of cadets who graduate from the Freestate Academy are placed in jobs, pursue college, an apprenticeship or trade school in their post graduate year, added Rose.
White said similar numbers are true from the other ChalleNGe academies.
“That reputation grows and it builds and develops over time, bringing more people into the program,” said White. “Success breeds success.” In fact, he added, many academies have a waiting list.
Even those cadets who may not earn their GED certificate right away come through with skills that can help them earn that and more down the road.
“They may not achieve their GED certificate during the residential portion,” said White. “Perhaps they were too far behind. But they do obtain a broad range of life skills that will help them create a successful path for themselves and hopefully continue on and get that GED or high school diploma.”
Success is a relative concept and can’t necessarily be measured in terms of diplomas or degrees earned, Rose observed.
“Not all cadets continue on to college,” he said. “But they can secure and retain a good job. They can grow up and have families and provide for their loved ones. Those are success stories too.”
Regardless of what led each cadet to the Youth ChalleNGe program, each must voluntarily elect to enter the program.
“You can’t be forced to attend a ChalleNGe academy,” said White. “The student must sign their name and complete a personal interview after their parents leave the room.”
The goal is to ensure the cadets are committed to investing in the program and themselves and truly want to be there.
“They have to be willing to change,” said White. “If they’re not willing, no matter what we try to teach them, it’s just going to go in one ear and out the other.”
For Hosley, the Freestate Academy cadet who shook her head at the boy doing pushups, one of those changes was a fundamental approach to everyday obstacles.
“Freestate taught me to think before I react,” she said.
But whatever that change is, simply seeing it take place is one of the best parts about the program, said Rose.
“I have the best job in the world,” he said. “I’m here, working with good people and making an impact in the lives of our cadets. It doesn’t get better than that."