Alaska Youth Program Gives 'At-Risk' Students Chance
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
FORT RICHARDSON, Alaska, Sept. 3, 2005 A National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program is giving "at-risk" Alaskan youth a chance to turn their lives around.
The Alaska Military Youth Academy, which administers the ChalleNGe, is a voluntary program for 16- to 18-year-olds who have either dropped out of high school or been expelled. While the program can accommodate just over 200 cadets, officials say students have to genuinely want to help themselves to be accepted into the program.
In addition, cadet hopefuls can have no legal charges pending against them, must be drug-free and can't have earned a high school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma. They also must be a U.S. citizen or legal resident and be unemployed.
Cadets, as they are known at the academy, face a five-and-a-half-month residential phase during which the focus is on getting their lives on a positive track. That's achieved by developing life skills including citizenship, leadership, coping and job skills.
The cadets are also expected to perform community service, work toward physical fitness and develop good health and hygiene habits, officials explained.
At a minimum, they're expected to improve their academic standing by building their math and reading comprehension. The goal of the ChalleNGe is for all cadets to obtain a high school diploma or GED.
"If they come in with 15 credits or more when they hit the door, (they can earn a high school diploma)," said Edward Wicher, AMYA's director of admissions and records.
The academy is accredited, so even if cadets don't have enough credits to earn a diploma, they can transfer those they earn to another school and finish later, officials said. And whether that's completed during the residential phase of the program or during the post-residential mentoring phase that lasts for a year, most cadets go on to earn at least a GED. About 20 percent of program graduates continue their education at the post-secondary level, officials said.
While academics are a main focus, the AMYA offers job-skills training in areas like carpentry, culinary arts and computer technology. And because the academy is run in a military fashion, cadets develop military skills and discipline, as well. This training leads some cadets into the work force and some into the military, academy officials said
When graduation day arrives, cadets find that they've made positive changes in their lives.
"I was kind of disrespectful before coming here," Cadet Roy Sanders, 17, said. "I just didn't do what I was asked to do when it came to my parents. (The ChalleNGe) has already affected me positively."
Sandes said his parents noticed a big change within six months of his entering the program. "They say I'm not even the same person," he said.
But the hard work isn't over. The 12- to 14-month post-residential mentor phase pairs the cadet with a mentor, often someone the cadet has chosen. Mentors help keep cadets on track during the program, officials explained.
Alhough the cadets may have to purchase some clothing items, the program itself is funded through a federal and state funding partnership. Federal guidelines for the 26 Youth ChalleNGe programs put the cost to put each cadet through a program at about $14,000.
Wicher said Alaska's governor and legislature are strongly supportive of the program, recognizing its long-turn benefit to the state, many that aren't easily measurable.
"We know that families are reunited, which means a healthier community," Wicher said. "We know that 95 percent of these guys aren't going to be involved (negatively) with law enforcement. We know that about the same percentage will be employed full time or be in school full time, or a combination ... rather than doing what, we as a society don't want them doing."
Wicher isn't wearing rose-colored glasses, however. He admits that over the next year, two or three or even four cadets may drop from the program.
Those who succeed, however, far outnumber those who do not. And the greatest measure of the program's success, he said, are those cadets who take their experience and do great things with it.