When I told people Kyle was attending the ChalleNGe Academy, I got the same question every time.
It was, “What is the ChalleNGe Academy?”
The ChalleNGe Academy is a residential program, affiliated with the National Guard and located at Fort McCoy.
Many think of it as a boot camp for troubled youth, but it is hardly that.
The ChalleNGe Academy offers teens who are struggling academically the structure, discipline and recognition they need to succeed. This program is a way for students between ages 16 3/4 and 19 to obtain their High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED), build their character and become better citizens.
The program is voluntary. The youth must want to change themselves and have to tell the academy why they want to attend.
They have to write goals and explain what they hope to gain by attending the academy and what they plan to do when they are done.
I am sure there have been times when parents, teachers or judges wanted to order youth to attend the academy. In the end, the teens must make the decision.
I give a lot of credit to these youth, as I know I could not have made that kind of difficult decision at their age.
For 22 weeks, students stay on the academy’s grounds, where they work on eight core components: academic excellence, life coping skills, job skills, health and hygiene, responsible citizenship, service to the community, leadership and followership, and physical fitness. Cadets must successfully complete all eight components to receive their certificate of completion from the academy.
Last December, my pastor told me about the academy. I presented the idea to my son, Kyle.
After much thought and research, he decided it would be the best option for him academically, as he had always struggled in a regular school setting.
He completed the necessary forms. They were mailed in, and this past Jan. 4, he received his acceptance letter.
Nine days later, I drove him to the academy. With a heavy heart, I hugged him goodbye and told him I was proud of him and loved him.
They pointed him in one direction and me in another. I headed home without him.
Although I knew it was a great opportunity for him and was excited for him, there was still uncertainty. The program is voluntary, which meant he could decide at any time that he wanted to come home.
The first three weeks are very hard on the youth.
They are stripped of all materialistic things and given military buzz cuts, gray sweatsuits, shorts and boots. No more Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, Hollister or any other brand names he had grown so accustomed to.
Once they complete the candidate requirements, they are accepted as cadets and then rewarded with military pants, boots, a hat and red ChalleNGe Academy polo shirts and sweatshirts.
My son had never been so proud of getting new clothes, and there was no sense of entitlement. He wore the clothes with a sense of pride and accomplishment – right down to having to spit shine his black military boots, but grateful and proud to wear them.
We were not able to talk for the first three weeks, and after that, only for 10 to 20 minutes every Sunday.
Our only form of communication was through letters. There were no emails, no Internet, no cellphones – just old-fashioned pen and paper.
With each phone call, I could hear in Kyle’s voice that he was happier, truly proud of his accomplishments and more confident in himself.
He wrote letters home, sharing everything he was doing – running the mile in just over six minutes, doing pushups and situps, tutoring children at a local Boys and Girls Club, volunteering for community service and marching for 15 miles.
Months before, I could not get him off the couch to take out the garbage.
He was happy, laughing at his mistakes, accepting responsibility for them, proud of himself and communicating again.
On June 11, Kyle graduated from the academy and earned his HSED. There were 104 cadets in his class, and 88 of them also earned their HSED through the academy.
Kyle now has goals for his future, something he did not have before going to the academy.
His grades at the academy were A’s and B’s, compared to D’s and F’s. He is proud of his accomplishments and has a level of respect instead of a sense of entitlement.
At the academy, he was taught about leadership. He learned the importance of family and of being respectful.
As a parent, it was one of my proudest days when I watched him walk across the stage and accept his certificate of completion with pride.
Kyle has chosen to return to Waupaca High School for the 2011-12 school year and will receive his high school diploma next May.
There are no words that can express the appreciation I have for what the ChalleNGe Academy did for Kyle and for the other youth that would have fallen through the academic cracks in a regular school system.
The decision Kyle made to attend the academy was a good one. It worked for him where nothing had before. He has said he would recommend the program to other youth struggling with academics and making poor choices, and is grateful for everything he learned through the experience.