2008-05-28 / Family

At-risk youth take the Commonwealth ChalleNGe

By Sande Snead

Michael Trice got into a fight at Manchester High School and found himself kicked out of school at 16 years of age. He refused to accept being a high school dropout, so he applied to Commonwealth ChalleNGe.

Commonwealth ChalleNGe is the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program. It is a free 17-month, coeducational program for at-risk teens, ages 16-18, that blends a structured school environment with exercise and military-style training and drilling.

"I didn't want to be a failure," Michael said. "My dad didn't graduate from high school, and I wanted to do something with my life."

The two-part ChalleNGe program consists of a 22-week quasi-military residential phase at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach followed by a 12-month post-residential phase where the cadet is paired with a mentor to help with follow-through on a life plan. Candidates must be drug-free and living in Virginia. The program does not accept anyone currently charged with or convicted of felony offenses, and candidates must enter the program voluntarily.

Typically, Commonwealth ChalleNGe cadets have been expelled from or dropped out of school. Others may be still in school, but the traditional classroom experience isn't working out. Some have become involved with drugs or alcohol. All of them need guidance to get back on track.

"The organization and discipline that cadets find here is what they hate, but find absolutely necessary for their lives," said Col. (Ret.) Thomas M. Early (USMC), director of the program. "Teenagers like to know what is expected of them, and they come here to find that structure. Many of them react with shock and awe at this program, and then they adjust. By the end of the class, they ask if they have to go home."

Michael is a member of the 28th class (referred to as Class 28) since the program's inception in 1994. The program has two classes a year that run from January through June and July through December. Typically, there are 100-150 cadets per class. Class 28 has 125 cadets.

So far, Commonwealth ChalleNGe has given more than 2,600 Virginia teens, about 210 of whom have been from Chesterfield County, a second chance for a better future.

The program is rigorous. Cadets wake at 5:30 a.m. and begin by cleaning up themselves and their area. They march as a platoon, then go to breakfast. They have morning formation before heading to classes from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. After classes, there's physical training for an hour followed by chow and time for showers, phones, mail call, SREs (snacks, ready to eat) and laundry. There's a latrine call, then they are "in the rack" (bed) by 2100 (9 p.m. in military parlance).

The program has three phases. After six weeks, cadets can begin earning a step to the next phase. First, there is the green phase, then silver, then gold. Gold is typically achieved in the 16th to 22nd week and allows cadets several privileges they are not afforded in the early stages of the program.

Now in the final weeks of the program, Michael is moving through these phases.

"I've learned to restrain my anger, and to do what I have to do to achieve here," he said. "When I finish here, I would like to go back to high school to play sports. I want to earn a scholarship to play football in college."

Earning a scholarship is not out of the question for these students. After completing the program, some high schools embrace them with open arms.

"One football player was invited back to his high school, and his coach told him he'd get the scouts from Georgia Tech to take a look at him," Col. Early said. "It really depends on the history. If he or she was involved in fighting and was frequently expelled from school, it might be contentious to try to go back to that high school. If the student was merely truant, it might not be an issue."

By the end of the program, cadets have the opportunity to take the General Educational Development (GED) test. And while there is no military commitment after the program, about 20 percent of cadets choose this path, often because of the educational opportunities offered. (About 60 percent join the workforce, and another 20 percent continue their education.)

Brandi Wellington, 18, dropped out of Meadowbrook High School two years ago, and had been living with her mother. When her mom came across information on Commonwealth ChalleNGe on the Internet, she and Brandi agreed to go to an orientation.

"My mother and I are like best friends, but I didn't want to live with her anymore," Wellington said. "I needed time apart to get me together."

Also a member of Class 28, Wellington plans to join the Army when she completes the program.

"School isn't for everyone," she said. "When I was in high school, I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. But now I'm getting the discipline to do what I need to do. By joining the military afterwards, I can afford to go to college."

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