ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, June 21, 2010) -- The scene will be the same as at any high school around the country: bright, young faces in caps and gowns celebrating graduation as family and friends look on, smiling and tearing up with joy.

This month, more than 4,000 cadets, across 28 states, will graduate from the National Guard's Youth ChalleNGe program -- which, since 1993, has provided a means for "at risk" youth to earn their General Equivalency Degree or high school diploma. By the end of the year, it's expected the program will graduate its 100,000th student.

"It's an important milestone just because it's 100,000 kids ... who were given a second chance to get their life back on track," said Joe Padilla, the program manager for the ChalleNGe program at the National Guard Bureau. "So, you've got 100,000 people there who are now doing well and being productive citizens back in their communities or serving in the military or doing all kinds of great things they weren't doing prior."

Padilla said for those students, graduation is a "giant milestone."

"All of them were high school dropouts or expellees at one time," he said. "And prior to coming to the program, they often really hadn't experienced any type of success, especially on the academic side."

While 100,000 students graduating from the program is worth noting, Padilla said it's a relatively small number compared to the larger problem of school dropouts in the United States.

"If you compare it to the high school dropout problem in the United States, there's over a million kids that drop out of school every year," he said. "So, 100,000 graduates over roughly 20 years is not even a drop in the bucket. But that doesn't mean that it's not significant."

Padilla said last year, the program graduated 7,600 kids -- but over twice that many applied for the program. "So, there is a need out there," he said.

The 17-month program is broken down into roughly five-month residential and 12-month post-residential phases.

During the residential phase, participants are required to do physical training each day, go to school as well as work on community service projects, all-the-while under the guidance of the civilian staff and military cadre of the program.

"It's a quasi-military environment," said Padilla. "So, they get up at 5:30 in the morning, and they do their PT. They come back and they clean up their living area because they are living in platoon-sized barracks. From there, they have breakfast and then off to school."

The school may be a bit different from the schools these cadets left behind.

"It's not the school they were used to before coming to the program," said Padilla. "They are actually having to apply themselves because the classes are smaller and therefore the teachers have more time to spend with them on a one-on-one basis, and if they are choosing to not apply themselves, they've got the cadre outside that can take them out and (motivate them) and boom, they're back in school."

And that is one of the reasons for the success of the program, said Padilla.

"They're not dumb kids at all, they've just never applied themselves, and they never knew what it was to be successful and that's what happens in the classroom," he said. "That's why we have such an outstanding GED or high school attainment rate, because they blossom in the classroom."

Academics, however, are only part of it. Service to community is another aspect. As part of the program, participants are required to accomplish 40 hours of community service, said Padilla.

"They spend most of their day in school and at the end of the school day they do some service-to-community projects, which can be tutoring at a local elementary school, they can be working at a local park or something of that nature, giving back," said Padilla, adding that weekends see participants working on service projects or attending trips that add to the educational experience.

"They are busy all the time," he said. "That's why it's called ChalleNGe. It's not easy."

And that's only the first five and-a-half months of the program.

After students graduated, they move to a 12-month post-residential phase where they are mentored and tracked by case managers to make sure they are being productive. If they're not, Padilla said, they go back and find out what the issue might be and try and fix it.

Upon graduating to the post-residential phase, each participant has formulated a post-residential plan as well as identified an adult mentor to work with while implementing that plan.

"While they are in that particular phase of the program they are mentored by a caring adult that they've selected themselves," said Padilla. "They go down that road for the next 12 months and hopefully everything is going well and that young man or young lady is going back to school, or they're getting a job. Some choose to join the military and some choose to do a combination of those three. We want them to be productively placed."

As the program nears 100,000 graduates, Padilla said that it has come a long way since 1993. The program started with 10 sites across the country and now has 32 sites in 28 states and one territory.

The goal is to have about 50 program sites across the United States, and "that would give every kid that wants the opportunity to attend the ChalleNGe program to do so," said Padilla.

"It's a fantastic event to go to a ChalleNGe graduation and see the transformation in these kids," said Padilla. "It only happened because of the commitment the kids had to wanting to change their lives."

(Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy writes for National Guard Bureau)