FORT KNOX, Ky. — While Kentucky schools, including Fort Knox Community Schools, remain closed for the remainder of the school year, one school here continues to hold in-person classes and operate normally.The 70 or so teens of Class 42 attending Bluegrass ChalleNGe Academy still live together, eat together, march around, exercise, stand at parade rest to show respect, and share a laugh or two as they work on their school studies – together.While almost all students throughout the United States are ending their school year virtually and at home, the students at BCA will remain in their brick-and-mortar school until they graduate May 23 — by order of the governor.“We are one of only six schools currently operating in the United States, and the only one in the commonwealth of Kentucky,” said retired Brig. Gen. Charlie Jones, director of the academy.The academy was permitted to continue operations because of a unique set of circumstances. According to Fort Knox medical officials, because they are not allowed to leave, the students are, in effect, already quarantined at the academy grounds. Birthday visits by family members as well as mentor visits are all being conducted virtually.Additionally, the limited number of staff in the facility are required to follow all CDC-recommended guidelines.In 1999, Bluegrass opened its doors at Fort Knox to teens who officials call “at risk,” the first National Guard-managed facility to do so in Kentucky. Forty-one such facilities operate across the United States, two of which are located in Kentucky.“What we do here is take kids from the commonwealth that are having issues, whether it’s issues at home, or school, or with the judicial system, and teach them the components to try and turn them around and get them refocused on what’s important,” said Jones. “We have kids coming from all walks of life.“We’re not, however, a boot camp.”From day one, the students are taught respect for themselves and others, discipline, education and life skills. This first phase is an orientation time for the youth to get them adjusted to the rules and operations they will follow for the next 22 weeks.The academic classes begin in week three, at the start of the second phase, with a focus on two tracks: credit recovery and the General Education Diploma, or GED. The classes, which run during normal school hours Monday thru Friday, are accredited under Eminence Independent Schools.Upon graduation from the 22-week residential course, youth move into a post-residential phase, where they return back to their original environment and are paired with a mentor who continues to encourage them. Upon completion of that phase, which lasts 12 months, the students are then considered alumni.Jones said that third phase is as critical as the first two because the students need somebody who will continue to care about what they accomplish as they finish up traditional school or advance beyond school.“A lot of them have either been neglected or physically or verbally abused nearly their entire life,” said Jones. “If I can get you to be confident in yourself, I can teach you to do about anything that you want to do.”Since its inception in 1993, the National Guard Bureau program has helped more than 180,000 students graduate. However, there remains a stigma that follows challeNGe academies. At Bluegrass, for instance, the academy’s commandant, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Major, said he finds this stigma sometimes difficult to overcome.“At the deli department in the commissary one day, I’m standing there in my uniform when a young boy was acting up,” said Major. “She looked at me and then said, ‘You keep doing it; you see that guy right there? I’m going to send you over to that guy with those bad kids over there.’ The kid grabbed hold of her leg, all scared.“How do you respond to that? I’m now the bad guy. But we don’t have bad kids over here; they’re just kids.”Jones and Major said they have seen all kinds of hard luck stories pass through the academy doors at the start of a class.“There’s a billion stories,” said Jones. “We all have a story, but these kids are still just kids. Are they a product of their environment? Yeah. Are we trying to get them back on track, and teach them the values and skills to stay on track? Absolutely.“Does it work with all of them? Nope; but it’s absolutely a lifesaver for a lot of them.”According to Jones and Major, before attending BCA, one of their cadets was living under a bridge in Louisville.“This kid is very intelligent, and he will do good in life,” said Jones. “He hasn’t had any issues here. Life just dealt him that hand.”The cadet arrived at the academy as an 18-year-old. Though considered unusual since the cutoff is 17 to attend, the staff made an exception for him. He is now class president and a blue shirt.While most cadets wear gray shirts, blue shirts earn the right to wear the color, which also affords them several privileges, including beds rather than cots, TV and videogame time, and occasional pizza parties. The privilege can be lost.As the students of Class 42 prepare to graduate, Major said his nearly 10 years of time at the academy has taught him the value of challenging the lives of the youth. Every graduating class has its own issues as well as its own successes.“That reward at the end, that’s what I look at,” said Major. “That reward that out of 10 cadets, you changed the lives of two cadets and pointed them in the right direction. I feel that in my heart when they walk across the stage.”