ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - The Maryland National Guard Freestate ChalleNGe Academy in-processed 115 candidates for Class #44 at the APG South (Edgewood) recreation center Jan. 11.
The academy provides Maryland teens who have withdrawn from high school a second chance at an education and the ability to make a significant change in their lives. For 22 weeks, cadets ages 16-18 voluntarily reside in the academy's residential program: a structured, disciplined, military-style environment.
The program also includes a post-residential phase, in which cadets work closely with mentors in their community. Graduating cadets either obtain employment, continue their education or enter the military.
During in-processing, teens are issued Freestate gear, are assigned a mentor, receive the FCA Cadet Handbook and more. Parents and guardians receive an orientation and later the same day, male candidates receive a military-style haircut.
Before being officially accepted into the program, candidates go through a two-week acclimation phase, during which they adjust to their new environment. During this time, candidates are not allowed to use phones and are encouraged to write and receive letters.
Noting that FCA cadets are required to give up distractions like cell phones, social media, video games and music while they are in the program, FCA Director Charles Rose said the new environment can be a difficult adjustment.
"We do our best to encourage them to stick it out and try another day," Rose said. "They need to take it day by day."
Rose added that many cadets make tremendous academic growth during the 22 weeks.
To track progress, students take the Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE) at the beginning of the cycle and again at the end of each cycle. Rose said that during the previous cycle that ended in December, cadets, on average, advanced their performance from a fifth to a tenth-grade level. In addition, more than 40 cadets passed the General Educational Development (GED) test.
Josh Barlow, FCA acting lead instructor, said cadets thrive in an environment that is structured.
"We hold them to a strict schedule and we hold them accountable," he said. "The more they become comfortable with it, the more successful they become. It starts with discipline."
Because so many cadets decide to join the military after leaving FCA, to prepare them, students are required to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, (ASVAB) a multiple-aptitude test that measures abilities and helps predict future academic and occupational success in the military.
Candidate Michael White said he is attending the academy to obtain his GED and prepare for the military. He said he hopes to adopt healthier habits and lose at least 100 pounds during his stay. White said he realizes he needs a strict schedule to achieve his goals and appreciates the fact that cadets go to bed 9 p.m. and get up for morning physical training 5:30 a.m.
This is the first class in which cadets will have the opportunity to go off post for vocational training. The FCA has partnered with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA) to provide vocational training in horticulture, culinary arts, automotive, barbering and cosmetology for 20 weeks, for 40 cadets.
Selection is based on behavior and academic performance. Candidate Zairah Castillo said she hopes to take cosmetology training.
"My goal is to be a dental assistant, but doing hair would be a dream side job," she said.
Candidate Hanna Pagano admitted that she was nervous about leaving her family behind.
I am very proud of her for taking this step, I think she will do well and it is all for the best," said her mother Susan Pagano.
Candidate Pierre Choisy said he didn't want to leave his friends, but he is focused on his goal to become a physiologist.
"It's going to take time, it's going to be a work in progress," he said. "I feel [what is learned here] will help me later in my life."
In addition to the Academy staff and cadre, individuals from the Maryland Defense Force, Young Marines and other volunteers assisted the in-processing procedures.
To learn more about the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy program call Anita Carraway, lead recruiter, at 410-436-3220.