July 3, 2012
By Chloe Feyock, 16, Max Gabovitch, 19, and Carmela Verderame, 12
Ariel Gonyea, 17, was a good student at Columbus East High School. After her sophomore year, she moved in with a friend and enjoyed a lazy summer, hanging out and having fun.
By August, she had lost interest in high school. “I didn’t drop out, but I wanted to because I just could not stand the whole high school environment,” she said. “There were just a lot of dumb kids doing dumb things.”
With the help of her parents, she found an alternative: Hoosier Youth ChalleNGe Academy, a community-based residential program for youth ages 16 to 19 who are having trouble with traditional high school.
The academy, a National Guard program based at the former Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s Home in Knightstown, is geared to Indiana students who have dropped out of high school or who are academically behind. Employing a quasi-military model, it teaches eight “Core Components,” ranging from leadership development and academic excellence to job skills, coping strategies and fitness training.
Incoming students, called cadets, spend five and a half months at the Knightstown facility, where they receive training and work toward a GED. They then spend the next 12 months pursuing educational and career goals with the help of a mentor, usually in their hometowns.
Kenneth Brown, 19, Terre Haute, graduated from the Academy in 2010. He calls it a place where students can go “to straighten out their lives, to try to plan their futures and to obtain discipline and structure.”
While Ariel had been a good student before coming to the academy, most students aren’t. Brown, cadet Joseph Jackson Jr., 18, Crown Point, and 2011 graduate Cole Davis, 19, New Palestine, all admitted to struggling in school and falling behind their classmates academically.
“It gives you a lot of the structure that people need in their lives,” Jackson explained. “It’s more like a school setting and military setting together.”
The first two weeks of the program is called Pre-ChalleNGe, and for most cadets, it’s the hardest part. During this period cadets don’t attend academic classes; instead, their days are filled with physical fitness training. The goal is to instill discipline, and it is at this point when students tend to drop out.
“It’s just getting you used to the lifestyle you’re going to be in for the next five months,” explained Ariel.
This lifestyle limits most personal items. “You can’t have anything. You have basic lotion, basic shampoo and it’s all unscented, three shirts that they give you, so you can’t wear your own clothes, your shoes or anything,” Ariel said. “No makeup.”
Cadets are prohibited from wearing jewelry unless it’s religious, but they are allowed to keep family photos.
All of the restrictions take their toll. “The first week, I was actually really homesick,” Jackson recalled. “I really wanted to go home, and I missed my friends and my girlfriend and my family just a lot.”
After pre-ChalleNGe, the cadets’ schedules are filled with activities from sun-up to sundown Monday through Friday. “We wake up at 6:00 and we do our hygiene, basically clean up the bay and the common areas and the latrines. And then it’s right off to chow,” Jackson said.
After breakfast, the cadets have three academic classes then three core classes after lunch. Then they have a short study hall to catch up on work or get some help with classes. “Then we have dinner, and then we have PT for about hour or so,” Jackson added.
Once the cadets are through with physical training, it’s back to the barracks. The women live separately from the men, and they have very little contact with each other. Both genders report for meals but are kept separate – one group goes through the chow line, then the other. The women then eat in a separate room in the mess hall.
For the cadets, academy life is vastly different from their previous lives except for some weekends, when they can perform community service or go on outings. These trips are coed and are earned by good work habits and exemplary conduct.
Just as the cadets’ schedule evolves, so does their relationship with the staff, or cadre. For the first few weeks, the new cadets often feel intimidated and defensive – the cadre often yell at the cadets when they do something wrong, such as speaking without permission.
But once they adjust to the military lifestyle, they realize the cadre are actually there to help. “They turn into mentors and people you look up to,” Davis said.
Not only do the cadre teach the cadets discipline and how to perform tasks to the highest standards, they also try to help them with personal issues and weaknesses. “If your issue’s anger, they’ll work on anger,” Ariel said. “If yours is patience, they’ll teach you patience. Just whatever problem you have in coping, you learn to deal with it.”
“They all have something to teach you,” Jackson added. “You can learn something from each and every one of the staff here.”
While the cadre work with cadets on personal challenges, they also help them with academic ones. For the cadets, school at the academy is generally easier than the schools they came from because they are studying for the GED.
“It depends on how much you know,” Davis explained. “There are some kids who come in there who don’t even know how to read as well as people who have made straight A’s their whole life.”
Those who formerly had bad study habits find the discipline instilled at the academy also helps them in their schoolwork. For example, Brown said at his previous school, he focused more on his social life than on his classes and had only 18 credits at the end of his sophomore year.
That changed at the academy. “I found it a lot more helpful. At the formal school, they just kind of give you the homework and they don’t explain it as much. Here they’ll actually sit down with you and explain what needs to be done,” he said.
The last part of the program is post-residence, when the cadets return to their homes. They all have mentors to keep them on the right track and help them focus on their career goals. Mentors are usually family friends or positive people in their community.
For Brown and Davis, having a mentor has been necessary in achieving their goals. Brown’s mentors have helped him find a job, and they have become close friends. “I went to church with both of them and one of them is my pastor, so I get to see them frequently. Any troubles that I have, I can go to them and talk to them,” he said.
Davis’ mentor also helped him find a full-time job. He’s working until he leaves for basic training.
In fact, for many cadets, joining the military is the career of choice. Ariel and Jackson, who graduated earlier this month, both intend to join the military and go to college.
For Ariel, going to ChalleNGe Academy was the right move. If she had stayed at her home school, she would have just finished her junior year of high school. Instead, she has graduated from ChalleNGe Academy, has her GED, just finished basic training and has signed up for classes at Ivy Tech, Columbus. “I definitely would much rather be in college than in high school six hours a day, every day with some immature people who just want to talk and do some crazy stuff.”
ChalleNGe Academy serves as more than a school; it is an opportunity for students to get a fresh start.
Reporters Anna Flood, 12, Hannah Sendek, 10, and Jenna Williams 12, contributed to this story.
Hoosier Youth ChalleNGe Academy graduated 85 cadets on June 16. It was its 10th class, which had originally started with 135 teens. The academy is part of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program, which operates in 27 states and has graduated 100,000 cadets nationwide since 1993.
- The Indiana academy started in 2007. It was in based in Edinburgh until 2010.
- Two classes are offered a year. The next class starts July 14.
- There is no charge for Indiana residents.
- For more information, visit http://www.ngycp.org/site/state/in/ or call 1-866-477-0156.