At the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground about 20 miles northeast of Baltimore, 107 teens are on the verge of earning their GED. The young men and women, who range in age from 16 to 18 years old, have experienced various problems at home, at school and with the law.
In many cases, they have encountered difficulties too burdensome to overcome— until now.
They have enrolled in the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, a quasi-military residential program supported through funding from the state and the Army.
“The ‘NG’ is capitalized because the program is endorsed by the state of Maryland and is in a cooperative agreement between The Maryland National Guard and the National Guard Bureau,” said Charles Holloway, the deputy director and program coordinator at the academy.
More importantly however, the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy is a tuition-free program offering at-risk teens an opportunity to change their future by providing the skills, education and self-discipline needed to become responsible, productive citizens.
The program consists of a 22-week residential phase where students— called cadets— learn self-discipline, leadership and responsibility.
Uniforms are issued and bags are inventoried for required items as academy officials collect and review medical and academic records.
Male participants are given military-style haircuts and all participants live and work in a controlled military environment, encouraging teamwork and personal growth.
A 12-month post-residential phase follows and focuses on helping to enroll graduates in continued education, technical school programs or entry-level employment. During the post-residential phase, students are assisted by at least one trained mentor from the community for further development and the academy provides instruction based on each cadet’s personal needs in order to prepare them to take the State of Maryland’s General Education Development exam.
“Where success is a subjective term, we have an expected success rate of 60 percent but often we exceed that number,” Holloway said. “We measure success by placement in jobs, schooling, military and others and by passing the GED test.”
The program has the capacity to hold 197 cadets and, on December 12, 2015, Holloway says 107 students are expected to graduate and receive their GED.
“The academy prepares cadets for the military in addition to providing a foundation of discipline needed for them to be successful citizens,” Holloway said.
Students are provided instruction in bed-making, hygiene, nutrition and anger management.
Cell phones and iPods are not permitted, and there are no televisions. Flashy sneakers are forbidden, as white low tops with white socks are the rule. Pockets are sewn shut to keep students from putting their hands in them. Headgear consists of a blue mesh ball cap and men and women are segregated.
To enroll, an individual must be a U.S. citizen and a Maryland resident between 16 and 18 and a high school dropout or are at risk of dropping out.
“They must not currently be on parole or supervised probation for other than juvenile status offenses; not awaiting sentencing; and not under indictment, charged or convicted of a crime that is considered a felony when charged as an adult,” Holloway said.
Mandatory drug screening is conducted within the first 40 days of starting Freestate ChalleNGe Academy and any applicant who tests positive for illegal drugs will be terminated.
“This is a second chance,” said Quentin Banks, Jr., director of Public Affairs for the Academy. “It’s an opportunity for the kids to possibly earn their GED.”
For more information about the program, visit www.freestatemil.maryland.gov.