Jan. 14, 2010

Virginia ChalleNGe program graduates largest class in program history

By Capt. Matt Nowak
Virginia Army Guard Public Affairs

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The Virginia National Guard’s Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy graduated the largest class in the history of the program Dec. 19 in a ceremony at Virginia Beach’s Ocean Lakes High School.

  ChalleNGe Graduation

Members of the Virginia National Guard’s Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy Class 31 prepare to graduate Dec. 19 in a ceremony at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach. (Photo by Capt. Matt Nowak, Virginia Army Guard Public Affairs)

Fighting the snow, the wind and heavy rains, families and friends from across Virginia packed the high school’s auditorium to watch their cadets of Class 31 cross the stage to receive their diplomas.

“These students came to us seeking a second chance, and we’ve provided them the guidance and direction they need to succeed in life,” said Col. Thomas M. Early, director of Commonwealth ChalleNGe. “I’m proud of them for taking the initiative to make a change for the better.”

Although it was a large class, each cadet’s name was read along with their post program status to highlight what each cadet has accomplished.

All cadets are either placed in employment, perform volunteer service, enlist in the military or continue their education. Class 31 enlisted four cadets into the Virginia Army National Guard.

“At the age of 15 I was kicked out of school in the ninth grade. Within five months I was arrested four times. I destroyed my relationship with my entire family. I wanted to start over and make something of myself. Then I decided to come to ChalleNGe,” class president Khalil Talbot said. “ChalleNGe has really changed my life for the better. They (cadre) taught me discipline, respect, honor, courage and showed us how to endure hard times. It has been a blessing to go through what I have experienced.”

As part of the ceremony, cadets were recognized for community service. The program includes service to community as one of the eight components of the program and a requirement to graduate. This year’s graduates averaged over 30,000 hours of service, accounting for a value to the community of over $165,000.

Groups of cadets were given certificates of recognition and small gifts by various organizations for which they performed their community service. Some of the organizations that presented the cadets with items are: the Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorney's Office, Virginia Beach City Public Schools Bus Maintenance Garage, Seatack Elementary School, Virginia Beach SPCA, and the Naval Air Station Oceana Commissary.

  ChalleNGe Graduation

Col. Thomas M. Early, director of Commonwealth ChalleNGe, hands a diploma to a graduating cadet from the Virginia National Guard’s Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy. (Photo by Capt. Matt Nowak, Virginia Army Guard Public Affairs)

There were some specially recognized cadets. Brian Lecea received the awards for both the Distinguished Cadet and the Physical Fitness Award. Sherman Walker was the class’s valedictorian.

The ChalleNGe program is designed for at-risk teens from ages 16 to 19. Class 31 graduated 160 cadets who completed the 17½-month co-educational program, which includes a two-part program consisting of a 22-week, quasi-military residential phase followed by a 12-month, post-residential phase.

During the part one residential program, cadet studies are centered on the eight components of the program: academic excellence, life-coping skills, job skills, responsible citizenship, leadership/followership, health and hygiene, physical fitness and service to community. If applicably, cadets are given the opportunity to take the General Educational Development test towards the end of the program.

The second part is a year-long, post-residential phase, built around a mentoring relationship established during the residential phase. Cadets are paired with a mentor who will help them follow through with a life plan. The plans can vary from continued education, employment or military service, which were established during the residential phase.

Commonwealth ChalleNGe is the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, which was authorized by Congress in 1993 and is managed by the National Guard Youth Foundation, a nonprofit organization overseeing 30 programs in 24 states and Puerto Rico.

The cadets of Class 31 are part of the now 3,165 teenagers who have graduated from the Commonwealth Challenge program since the Program began in 1994. The program achieves 100% placement, with 60% entering the workforce, 20% entering military service, and 20% continuing their education. The enrollment population is comprised of 75% male and 25% female, over 65% of enrollment is from Virginia’s minority population, and is provided at no cost to enrollees or their families.

The staff of the program is composed of current and retired servicemembers of the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy.

As one class graduates, the staff prepared for the next group of cadets which started Jan. 14, 2010.

Some additional information about the program:

  • 60% of the program’s funding from federal and 40% from state, the cost per cadet is $14,000.  On a per capita basis, Commonwealth Challenge is:
    • 85% less than high school
    • 320 percent less than job corps
    • 433 percent less than juvenile corrections
    • 600 percent less than adult corrections
    • 660 percent less than private military-style programs
  • Number of annual graduates is 250-270 (up from 200 in 2005), with enrollment increasing 38%.
  • Following graduation, the program achieves 100% placement, with 60% entering the workforce, 20% entering military service, and 20% continuing their education.
  • GED rate while at Commonwealth Challenge is about 65% since program inception.
  • Commonwealth Challenge received the National Challenge Award for Citizenship in 2008.
  • The program has won previous National Awards for best overall program, is a two-time awardee for leadership, awardee for physical fitness, and awardee for service to community.
  • Participants have donated more than four million hours in community service since the program’s inception. 
  • This program is fully funded through partnerships with the Department of Defense and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
  • Upon entrance into the ChalleNGe program, cadets are evaluated on their math and reading skills.  In order to graduate, cadets must show improvement from those initial scores.  Cadets also must fulfill a minimum 40-hour community service commitment.  Finally, cadets must identify employment, continuing education or military service goals for the post-residential portion of the program. 
  • The typical day at Commonwealth ChalleNGe begins with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call and ends with lights out at 9:30 p.m.  The cadets experience six educational classes from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., physical training and three meals a day.

Please visit their web page for more information about the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe program.

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