ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - The Maryland National Guard Freestate ChalleNGe Academy in-processed 180 candidates for Class #41 at the APG South (Edgewood) recreation center July 14.

The Freestate ChalleNGe Academy gives Maryland teens who have withdrawn from high school a unique opportunity, a second chance at an education. For 22 weeks, cadets ages 16-18 voluntarily live in the academy's residential program, a structured, disciplined, quasi-military environment. The program includes a post-residential phase, in which cadets work closely with mentors in their community. The cadets are placed into jobs, continue their education or enter the military.

During in-processing, teens receive their uniform, are assigned a mentor, have their bags checked and more. After the teens are in-processed their parents and guardians receive an orientation. Later that day the males receive a military-style haircut.

The candidates are currently in the academy's acclimation phase, a two-week timeframe when teens adjust to their environment and decide if they want to stay in the program. Of those teens, about 140 cadets are accepted into the program. This is the first time away from home for many of them.

During the acclimation period, the candidates do not use the phone, but are encouraged to write and receive letters. Retired MDNG Col. Rick Knauer, academy program cooridnator, said this helps the candidates learn to adjust to their new routine, which includes a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call for PT.

"This is a busy time for the candidates," said Knauer. "They get to know their teachers, learn how to adjust to a strict schedule and more."

Freestate ChalleNGe Academy Director Charles Rose said parents and guardians have to believe in the program and should encourage their teen to stay.

"This can be sad and difficult for some parents," Rose said. "I encourage the parents and the teens to stay strong and take it one day at a time. I tell them that if you can get through one day, you can get through 22 weeks."

Rose tells the parents that their teen will come back a different person.

"There will be a change in attitude, mental toughness, physical ability, and they will have goals," he said.

He said on average about 100 cadets graduate from the program each cycle, and he would like to see that number grow higher. During the year, the academy recruits at schools, community centers, and more.

"Cadets who graduate develop a sense of confidence, because they were able to accomplish a goal," stated Quentin Banks, Jr. of the Maryland Military Department. "During the residential phase, teens learn leadership and teamwork skills, as they all get an opportunity to take on a leadership role in their platoon."

In addition to learning how to adjust to a strict schedule, cadets receive an education that prepares them to take the GED and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. Rose said that in the beginning and end of each class all cadets take the Test for Adult Basic Education, or TABE.

"On average, cadets score 2 to 3 grade levels higher at the end of the class," Rose said.

Teens also learn important life skills, like money management, leadership, resume writing and interviewing techniques.

Candidate Ashley Garcia and her mother, Kenny Carde, of Harford County, admitted they were nervous, as this was Garcia's first time away from home.

"I am here because I want to better my future," Garcia said.

Patricia Thompson, mother to Ta'Vion Meekins, from Prince George's County, said she felt privileged that her son has this opportunity.

"I feel relieved that there is a program like this," she said. "I did everything I could do, but it's not easy for a single mom. I think my son will do well in this program."

Candidate Jonathan Tchougoue said that he was excited to have a second chance to succeed.

"It's an opportunity to reach my highest potential," Tchougoue said.

"I think he is ready to face this challenge," his father, Romuald Tchougoue said.

Rachelle Miller, from Prince George's County, said her goal is to one day be an Air Force officer.

"I wanted to see what it is like to live on a military base and become more disciplined," she said. "So I will be prepared for college and the Air Force."

In addition to the Academy staff and cadre, individuals from the Maryland Defense Force, Young Marines, and other volunteers helped with in-processing.

To learn more about the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy program call Bill Anderson at 410-436-3220.