By Vaughn R. Larson
Wisconsin National Guard
FORT McCOY, Wis. (10/09/12) - The superintendent of the state Department of Public Instruction got a good look at the life of cadets taking part in a successful remediation program for at-risk teens.
Dr. Tony Evers toured the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy at Fort McCoy, Wis., on Oct. 4 to get a sense of how the 14-year-old program operates and explore ways in which the Wisconsin National Guard and public instruction department can partner to help educate Wisconsin youth as well as help them reach their potential.
"We're here to take the kids that are on the wrong track, where the traditional school setting isn't working for them, and give them an opportunity," Keith Krueger, Challenge Academy acting director, said in a briefing for Dr. Evers. "To take some of those barriers away from them, and put some things in place in an environment where they can make some positive choices and get on the right track."
The Challenge Academy program began nationally in 1993 as a means of applying Department of Defense resources to the growing high school dropout rate, which Krueger described as a national crisis. In Wisconsin, an average of 6,000 students per year drop out of high school.
"Very few will actually get back on track to their education, and they struggle basically throughout life," Krueger said. He noted one study that indicates that each dropout can cost society as much as $2.5 million over the course of the first decade after quitting school. By comparison, the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy will cost about $4.2 million this year to operate - 25 percent of which is funded by the state DPI, and the rest covered by the Department of Defense.
If this [study] is accurate, we get four kids on the right track and we're paying for ourselves," Krueger said.
The Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy averages 200 graduates per year. Of the more than 3,100 cadets to enroll in the program since 1998, nearly 2,500 graduated the 22-week residential course and continued to the 12-month post-residential phase – a graduation rate of about 79 percent. A Rand Corporation technical report indicates that the Challenge Academy program realizes a 166 percent return on every dollar spent.
Challenge Academy succeeds, Kruger explained, because teens volunteer for the program, and because the closed environment at Fort McCoy removes them from bad influences or a troubled home life that can impede achievement. A strict daily regimen – each day begins at 5:20 a.m. and ends about 9 p.m. –provides much-needed structure, and the absence of TV, video games, Internet, personal music players and cell phones helps cadets focus on their academic and personal tasks.
Besides classes such as math, English or civics, cadets learn social skills, table manners, personal hygiene, phone etiquette and for the girls how to wear makeup.
"[We emphasize] the subtle look as opposed to the Brittany Spears look," Krueger said.
Challenge Academy also teaches eight core components – academic excellence; job skills; physical fitness; leadership and "followership;" health, hygiene and nutrition; life-coping skills; responsible citizenship and service to community. Each day includes the potential of difficulty for cadets -- what Krueger referred to as a "grit test."
"When things become uncomfortable, do you push through it and find a way through it and excel, or do you give up, lay down and go back to sleep?" he asked.
Dreshawn Covan, a cadet from the last Challenge Academy class, shared his past of not coming home, fighting in school or skipping classes, and hanging around with the wrong crowd. Sometimes he stayed away from home to avoid his mother seeing him intoxicated. Attempts to improve his behavior and academics were typically short-lived.
Covan said the death of his 16-year-old cousin - whom he described as a "good kid" who went to school - prompted him to change his ways.
"My friends were right about one thing - I only get to be a teen once," Covan said. "So why shorten that up?"
Among the lessons Covan said he learned at Challenge Academy: asking for help is not weakness but strength, how to walk away from a fight, how to bounce back from mistakes, and who really cared about him.
"I never got a letter from my friends," he acknowledged.
Covan said when he first arrived at Challenge Academy, he was a teen at risk.
"I am no longer a teen at risk," he told Evers. "I actually have a goal."
Cadet Taelor Davis - who escorted Evers and Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, adjutant general of Wisconsin around the Challenge Academy facilities - echoed Krueger and Covan.
"I've grown in integrity here," she said. "At midterm break I could tell I had changed. I had learned a lot. You don't notice the change until you go home."
Davis noted that cadets earn what they receive, including their uniforms - black leather boots, Battle Dress Uniform trousers, red T-shirts or polo shirts, and a BDU patrol cap.
"If you don't earn it, you won't see the value in it," she explained.
Shelley Joan Weiss, a DPI commissioner of education opportunities for military children, said that teens she has spoken with who quit Challenge Academy tend to regret their decision and often want to return. She asked one teen what he liked about the program.
"Sleeping in my own bed and sleeping at regular times every single day," was his reply, she said.
Evers seemed impressed with his visit.
"What I've learned is we're able to take kids that come from really difficult backgrounds and how we provide them with the skills to succeed," Evers said. "All the things they were missing in their lives, and in a relatively short period of time turn their lives around. It's been a very worthwhile visit."