W.Va. Guard academy helps 'at risk’ students earn diplomas
KINGWOOD, W.Va. - It was just like any of the high school graduations that take place across the country every spring - crying parents, flowers, long lines of students waiting for a diploma - but this was different, too.
It was a little bit different because of their posture - 76 teenagers with backs straight, feet flat on the floor, no giggling or smirking. And it was a little bit different because of the uniformity: 76 teenagers with buzz cuts or hair neatly braided flat on their heads.
But it was mainly different because of how remarkable it was that every one of these students came to be here, collecting a diploma.
Just 22 weeks ago, every one of these students was labeled "at risk" by themselves or someone else in their life. That's why they came here, to the West Virginia Army National Guard's Mountaineer Challenge Academy at Camp Dawson in Preston County.
Their offenses weren't severe - the Challenge Academy doesn't cater to kids who are in trouble with drugs or the law, but it's built for students who are probably not going to graduate from high school.
The idea is to catch them before they become high school dropouts, to usher them through the last of their teenage years and into a life trajectory that wouldn't have been possible without at least a GED.
The students come from across the state, but more have come from Kanawha County than any other. Since the camp was established in 1994, 383 students from Kanawha County have graduated from it.
"We give them a structure and give them the tools to succeed," said Major General James A. Hoyer, adjutant general of the Army National Guard. "They're doing it themselves, but we're giving them the things they need to be able to make it."
"Making it" through the Challenge Academy - 22 rigorous weeks of academics and military-style training - means finishing the academy and making academic progress. Until this year, that meant, at best, earning a GED.
But now, through a partnership with the Army National Guard and the state Department of Education, students can fulfill all the requirements for a high school diploma at the academy. The first students to do that graduated Friday. Of the 76 students who completed the academy, 47 earned a high school diploma.
Even the students who aren't able to earn that diploma tend to show substantial progress academically: The most recent class averaged passing 2.7 grade levels in their five months at Camp Dawson.
They leave healthier, too - weaned of alcohol and tobacco products and with improved physical fitness. One cadet in this year's class lost more than 60 pounds at the academy.
But a high school diploma can mean all the difference in a student's life, and officials saw the need to let students work toward high school graduation at the camp.
"We can get them to say 'yes sir' or 'no sir' at orientation," said Robert Morris, deputy director of the Challenge Academy. "But if we don't have them ready for college or a career, then we're missing a tremendous opportunity."
Making a high school diploma possible meant tweaking some education policies, but state superintendent of schools Jim Phares said the minor changes were well worth the major impact a high school diploma could have on the lives of these students.
There's payoff for local systems too - students who qualify for graduation at Camp Dawson are issued diplomas by their local school systems, helping boost that county's graduation rate.
"It's become a win/win situation," Phares said. "And they're given a second chance, which is what we're supposed to be about in education."
Kyle Nickolas, who was chosen by his class to speak at graduation, might have summed it up best when he spoke to his peers and their families at the commencement ceremony.
"To say our time here was interesting would be an understatement," he said of the cold showers, the pushups and the grueling schedule.
"But something that originally seemed so terrible to all of us evolved into amazing opportunities."
Maranda Hanlin of Monongalia County graduated Friday with a high school diploma. She said her 22 weeks at the Challenge Academy changed her life - as did the diploma in her hand.
"I'm just so thankful to everyone who put the time and money into this and me," she said after graduation, tears in her eyes. "I couldn't graduate before, but this let me do it."
Hanlin plans to attend nursing school in the fall.
Contact writer Shay Maunz at email@example.com or 304-348-4886.
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