Freestate ChalleNGe Academy gives at-risk youth a second chance

By Rachel Ponder, APG NewsApril 11, 2013

Freestate ChalleNGe Academy gives at-risk youth a second chance
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Freestate ChalleNGe Academy gives students withdrawn from high school, ages 16-18, a unique opportunity; a second chance at an education. For 22 weeks, the cadets voluntarily live in the academy's residential program, a structured, disciplined, quasi-military environment. The 17-month program is operated by the Maryland National Guard.

Freestate ChalleNGe Academy Director Charles Rose said the program receives about 450 applications per session and around 200 teens are selected to participate in the two week Pre-Challenge, or acclimation period, where the teens decide if they want to stay and participate in the program. Of those teens, about 140 cadets are accepted into the program.

"We choose teens that have a willingness to want to make a change in their lives," said Bill Anderson, who is in charge of recruitment.

During the residential phase, teens not only receive an education that prepares them to take the GED and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, they also learn life skills such as money management, leadership, resume writing and interviewing skills.

The program follows a strict schedule, including 9 p.m. lights out and a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call for PT.

"The cadets are monitored 24/7 by trained staff," Rose said. "Every minute of every day is accounted for."

Cadets are not allowed outside distractions like social media, internet and or cell phones. Those cadets who exhibit good behavior earn points; those who earn enough points can earn a trip home for a short period of time.

The program also includes a post-residential phase, where cadets work closely with mentors in their community. The cadets are placed into jobs, continue their education or enter the military.

Cadet David Farrell from Charles County said that he decided to enroll in Freestate because he did not adapt well in a typical high school environment. He needed to learn some time management skills in order to achieve his goals.

"It was like one ant following the next," he said. "I needed some structure."

Farrell said that the small classes and the instructors have helped him learn how to self-motivate and set goals. His long-term goal is to be a combat engineer in the Marines. His short term goals are to prepare for the GED and to get into the program's honor corps. The honor corps represents Freestate ChalleNGe Academy at public events.

"It is the least I could do," he said. "They have given me so many opportunities and they have saved my future. Now I want to grow up and be one of tomorrow's leaders."

Rose said that all cadets are active in the community. During the residential phase all cadets must volunteer at least 40 hours before graduating.

"Many cadets volunteer more than the required 40 hours," he said.

Rose said that there is a misconception that all the teens that enter the program are troubled.

"These are good kids that want some direction," he said. "They are looking for some positive feedback from adults."

"This is not a boot-camp program, no one is forced to come here by a judge," said the program's case manager Kevin Covington.

Cadets who enter the program must be drug-free, and have no pending court action, probation or indictment against them when they enter the program. Teens with felonies on their record will not be admitted to the program.

"I think that teens that decide to come to the program are dedicated to succeeding," said Cadet Juan Funderburk from Prince George's County. "We have to give up our old lifestyle. Being in the program is not easy; we have to get out of our comfort zone. It shows that we want to get on track."

Funderburk, who serves on the student government, said that his long-term goal is to serve as an officer in the military.

Cadet Chastin Kotapski from Edgewood, Md., said that she needed a break from all the distractions of her previous high school life. She said that the cadre care about the cadet's success.

"I like everything about the program," she said. "It has taught me discipline, how to be respectful and how to represent myself well in any situation. I definitely have more confidence since entering the program. I am now setting higher goals for myself."

Kotapski said that after she gets her GED she plans on going to Harford Community College and eventually wants to join the Air National Guard and become either a forensic scientist or a marine biologist.

"Before entering the program I didn't think that this was possible," she said. "I didn't have the confidence to achieve my goals."

Kotapski said that she is also pushing herself to achieve in honor of her mother, who passed away when she was two weeks into the program.

"I could have left, gone home, but I wouldn't have accomplished anything," she said. "I knew my mom would have wanted me to stay. I wanted to make her proud."

Jocelyn Oliva, from Hyattsville, Md., said that she wanted to make her education a priority.

"I want to join the military and eventually work for the FBI," she said. "This program gave me the confidence to achieve these goals."

CECOM Commanding General and APG Senior Commander Maj. Gen. Robert Ferrell said that he is a big supporter of the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy.

"I think it's a wonderful program that provides many opportunities for our youth, reinforces values that we all need in our toolkit to be productive citizens, like discipline, leadership, time management education, and healthy living," he said. "The cadre are excellent; totally involved in helping the cadets achieve their goals and broaden their minds."

Ferrell added that he is impressed with the level of support the program receives from Family members, faculty, the state, the APG community and sponsors. Many cadets receive scholarships after graduating from Freestate ChalleNGe Academy.

"I see potential in the program," he said. "Having Freestate at APG creates a climate of caring. We care about improving the lives of these cadets. The youth are our future. They are our future leaders."

To learn more about the Freestate Challenge Academy program or to obtain a copy of the program's calendar of events, contact Bill Anderson or Marissa Richards. Anderson can be reached at 410-436-3220 or email at Richards can be reached at 410-436-3255 or e-mail at