More than 150 Maryland teenagers took a giant step toward turning their lives around after being accepted as candidates for Class #45 of the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy (FCA) during in-processing at the APG North (Aberdeen) recreation center July 12.
"This is a second chance," said Quentin Banks, Jr., director of Public Affairs for the Maryland Military Department. "It's an opportunity for the kids to possibly earn the GED."
For 22 weeks, youths ages 16-18 voluntarily live in the academy's residential program, a structured, disciplined, quasi-military environment where they complete academic coursework and acquire essential life skills.
The program includes a 12-month post-residential phase, in which the teens work closely with mentors in their community. After graduation, most cadets obtain employment, continue their education or vocational training, or enter the military.
During in-processing, the teens were issued uniforms, considered potential mentors, had their bags inventoried for required items, and their medical and academic records were reviewed and collected. Male candidates also received a military-style haircut.
FCA recruiter Kelvin Chandler said Class #45 had approximately 250 applicants, with 204 receiving acceptance letters to the program. Chandler recruits each crop of candidates from all 23 counties in Maryland. All applicants must complete a series of orientations and interviews with program staff.
He said Class #45 candidates are now in the acclimation phase -- a two-week time frame in which they will adjust to their new environment and decide if they want to remain in the program. During this time, cell phones and other technology are banned, but the candidates are encouraged to write and receive letters. If they choose to stay, they will become FCA cadets during a crossover ceremony July 27.
For the time being, some candidates may struggle with homesickness and the transition to a more disciplined and structured lifestyle. Despite these challenges, FCA Director Charlie Rose said parents should encourage their children to stick with the program.
"We tell their parents: You need to be strong, because if you're weak and you allow them to come home, then what's the purpose of them coming here when you wanted them here in the first place," he said.
During in-processing, the parents and guardians of Class #45 candidates received an orientation briefing about the program, what they can expect from their child and how to provide constructive support throughout their time at FCA.
Rose added that some of the younger cadets will be placed on a path to re-enter high school, whereas others will prepare for the General Education Diploma (GED).
He said the GED recently became a computer-based test with stringent requirements for passing; students now have to perform at the college-entrance level. With these changes came a decrease in the number of cadets who were passing. However, the FCA procured a $50,000 grant for a new computer lab and study materials, which has greatly improved recent results.
"Our percentages are going back up to where we want them to be," Rose said.
He said he tells parents that their teen will return to them a changed person and that many of the candidates discover their potential in the academy. The staff also does their best to assist those who are struggling, he said.
"I did not bring them in here just to send them home, so we work with them as much as we possibly can. But they have to want to do it. They have to be willing to make the change," Rose said.
The FCA recently implemented a vocational training program with the National Centers on Institutions and Alternatives, and Class #45 will have the opportunity to train in the culinary arts, building maintenance, automotive skills, or barbering.
"The goal is to help convert them into what we call 'productive citizens,' and we've been very successful at that," Rose said.
Recent FCA Graduate Daniel Bernard, agreed that the academy changes youth for the better. Bernard volunteered to help during in-processing as a way to "give back" to those who he says changed his life. The 17-year-old graduated from the FCA in 2014.
"[I had] to straighten myself out and make sure I could provide for myself, and help my mom out as well," Bernard said, adding that he understands what the cadets are going through.
"When I first came here I was like, 'I don't understand how I'm going to make it,' but I had to think, 'do I really want my high school diploma?' I really wanted my diploma so I made sure I made it through no matter what."
Before separating, parents, guardians and their teens shared emotional goodbyes.
Neal Fletcher said he has great expectations for his stepson, FCA candidate Christopher Graham, 17.
"We feel like he's going to aim high and he's going to be all that he can be," Fletcher said. "We know he can do it. This is a structured environment. This is what he needs. I think he's going to soar high."
The Freestate ChalleNGe Academy is endorsed by the State of Maryland and is in a cooperative agreement between The Maryland National Guard and the National Guard Bureau. The program has graduated more than 4,000 youth since its inception in 1993. For more information, visit http://www.mdmildep.org/fca/.