An Alabama academy designed to help high school dropouts get back on track is hoping to recover from a dropout problem of its own: Since the program’s start in January, nearly three-quarters of participants have either left on their own or been expelled.
That turn of events has been an embarrassment for those running the Alabama National Guard Youth Challenge Academy, part of an effort by the National Guard to help teens obtain General Educational Development certificates.
Adjutant Gen. Mark Bowen, the head of the Alabama National Guard, attributes the high dropout rate to a rushed enrollment process. Because of a time squeeze between the start-up of the program and the beginning of classes, some applicants who did not meet all the academic and behavioral requirements were admitted to the academy.
In many cases, “teachers turn kids off, kids turn teachers off, and parents can make it difficult” for students to succeed, Gen. Bowen said. “We want to give them an opportunity to be successful citizens.”
The program will be stricter for the second round of classes, due to start on July 15, said Gen. Bowen.
Last year, Alabama had a total of 5,352 high school dropouts. The National Guard program aims to help 16- to 18-year-old dropouts who are unemployed, drug-free, and not in trouble with the law. The program, with roughly $3 million in federal and state funding, has openings for 125 students per semester.
Modeled after military boarding schools, the 22-week program begins with an intense, two-week period during which students can adjust to its structure, followed by a five-month residential phase where students work to complete their GEDs and make lifestyle changes.
Once students have completed the program, they will be paired with mentors who will help them to secure jobs, continue their education, or join the military.
But the program’s launch was anything but smooth. A cafeteria fight in January resulted in 30 expulsions and a number of dropouts. Enrollment has dwindled to 30 students from the original 117.
Gen. Bowen recently appointed a new director, retired Lt. Col. Roger Cagle, in hopes of revamping the program. The new director replaces former director Montaleto Irby.
“My goal for this program is that we give these kids a second chance to become productive, taxpaying citizens,” said Gen. Bowen, “one more chance to have a good, all-American life.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week