By SGT. 1ST CLASS JESSICA INIGO, Los Angeles Regional Public Affairs and,
SENIOR AIRMAN JESSICA GREEN, California Military Department Public Affairs
California National Guard Youth ChalleNGe academies are raising the bar across the nation, posting top-notch graduation and post-graduate placement rates and coming forth with groundbreaking ideas.
“We’ve received national recognition in each of the eight core components at our two programs,” said Brig. Gen. James L. Gabrielli, commander of the CNG’s Youth and Community Programs Task Force. “Most recently [Sunburst Youth ChalleNGe Academy] received an award as the most progressive program in the country.”
Sunburst, on Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos, and Grizzly Youth ChalleNGe Academy on Camp San Luis Obispo received funding this year based on a target graduation total of 175 students from Grizzly and 165 students from Sunburst, but both currently have more than 200 students enrolled and have high expectations. “We will exceed our target graduation [at each academy] by 30 students,” Gabrielli said. “At a cost of about $17,000 per student, taxpayers will be saving $1 million this year.”
Retaining cadets through graduation from the academies is a high point for the California programs, said Gabrielli, who served as a middle school teacher and elementary school principal for 14 years before taking over the Youth Programs Task Force. The national retention average throughout the five-month residential phase of the ChalleNGe program is about 70 percent, he said, with nearly one-third of all students washing out, being dismissed or voluntarily withdrawing from the program.
“Too many times programs invite students to their program but are very quick to dismiss them at the first sign of trouble, when we know these students have issues,” Gabrielli said. “If you’re too quick to pull the trigger, you’re not really giving them the second chance you’ve offered them.”
California has been among the top three states in the country for Youth ChalleNGe retention the past few years, averaging about 80 percent, but leaders have recently improved their processes, and Grizzly and Sunburst are now the only programs in the country exceeding 90 percent, with Sunburst at 96 percent. “Those statistics are phenomenal,” Gabrielli said. “The National Guard Bureau, at the national level, is looking at California to benchmark best practices to share that with the nation.”
The CNG academies also excel in cadet placement after graduation. Nationally about 60 percent of ChalleNGe students continue full-time education, work full-time or maintain a combination of both upon graduation, and the gold standard nationally is 75 percent. But in California, the average has been between 85 and 92 percent each of the last four years at both programs. “When you consider 100 percent of our students at day one of the program were dropouts, unemployed or underemployed, that’s a pretty darn good indication of the return on investment,” Gabrielli said.
The Bureau established Youth ChalleNGe academies in 10 states in 1994 in an effort to confront the growing number of youths dropping out of school and provide the discipline, education and skills necessary for dropouts and at-risk students to become positive members of their communities. The program expanded to include Grizzly in 1998 and added Sunburst in 2007.
|Jennifer Ofisa, 3rd Platoon leader for Sunburst Youth ChalleNGe Academy’s 10th class, calls out commands while saluting Brig. Gen. (CA) James Gabrielli, commander of the CNG’s Youth and Community Programs Task Force, on Sept. 15, 2012, at Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos, during Class 10’s first Family Day. |
GOING ABOVE AND BEYOND
Two years shy of its 20th anniversary, the Grizzly staff feels it has discovered the key to success through years of program development and continued achievement: caring for the whole student. “We use a purely holistic approach when working with our students,” said retired Maj. John Oberg, Grizzly commandant. “We look at every aspect of life that influences our students’ lives and care for them individually.”
Staff members identify educational needs, family situational needs and lacking areas of support to better place students for long-term solutions, Oberg said, noting some Grizzly students leave homes more than nine hours away. “Students here at Grizzly have a wide variety of home and family situations that need to be addressed,” he said. “We have homeless students and those coming from foster care. It’s important for us to understand the extent of the situations they are coming from and the challenges they’ll face when they leave.”
Grizzly’s post-graduate placement rates are among the highest in the nation, ranging from 90 to 91 percent. A key factor to that success is the My Action Plan, or MAP, which students develop in conjunction with counselors. MAPs include short- and long-term post-graduation goals. “Thirty days after leaving the program, my staff follows up with students and their MAPs,” Oberg said. “We make sure they are back in high school, enrolled in college, secured a job interview or have started working.”
While students are working toward graduation, the Grizzly staff works to keep students on track to achieve their goals within the program. “We’re not a GED or credit mill; we don’t push students through the program,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CA) Georganne Weiss, a student counselor at Grizzly. “We speak to why they’re in the program and discover why they’ve fallen so far behind.”
Weiss and three other counselors administer counseling groups and individually counsel students enrolled at Grizzly to get to know each student as a whole, discover what traumas may have occurred in their lives and address any emotional stress they are dealing with. “With exceedingly needy kids and only four counselors, we don’t like to pull them out of school,” Weiss said. “We focus on counseling groups, including smoking cessation, sexual assault, anger management and family systems.”
The Grizzly staff also has seen success in its Senior Cadet Program, which brings graduates from the previous class back to Grizzly to speak with new students. “It’s extremely helpful for current candidates to talk to their peers that have been in their shoes,” Weiss said. “They assimilate and adjust to this military-type lifestyle, deal with possible home sickness and just deal with everything they’re not used to.”
One of the things that makes California’s academies unique is the philosophy instilled in every staff member. According to Oberg, Gabrielli has inspired in them a passion for success and a compassion for students, with a goal of graduating every single student in the program. “It always comes down to staff and their willingness to go above and beyond,” Oberg added. “They work long hours, truly care about and meet the needs of these students.”
IMPROVING UPON THE MODEL
Sunburst Academy generally falls under the same guidelines as Grizzly and the rest of the ChalleNGe academies across the nation. However, there are some distinct differences that separate this newcomer as a shining star in the program. Along with Sunburst’s creation in 2007 came a new agenda aimed at finding the right kind of candidate to accept into the program, and also making a paradigm shift within the student’s family once he or she enters Sunburst. Maj. Joel Armstrong, director of the Sunburst Academy, said those principles have moved the program above its peers, resulting in higher retention numbers and a palpable difference in both the youths and their home lives.
Under Sunburst’s guidelines, candidates are required to make a commitment to themselves that they are ready for change, otherwise they are not allowed into the program. The staff communicates to candidates that they have the option of committing to turn their lives around, and if they choose to do so at this young age, they will reap the benefits the program offers. Or they can remain in the same situation that has failed them up to this point.
Obtaining a commitment can be hard, Armstrong said, as many candidates come from broken homes, have dabbled in drugs and alcohol, and have lacked structured discipline in their lives. “That’s what I love about this place: the discipline,” said Class 10 President David Viramontes, 17, of Wilmington, Calif., who learned of the program from a former cadet in his hometown.
Sunburst then takes the program a step further, ensuring the cadet’s parent or guardian is prepared for the change the Academy sparks in its students. Parenting classes are required for all cadets’ families, and a certificate of completion must be presented to the Academy before relatives can attend any Family Day events.
The benefits of the Sunburst program, though, go much further. Cadets use their time at the Academy to either gain enough credits to catch up with their high school class and graduate on time or to complete their high school education and earn their diploma at Sunburst. This is yet another aspect in which Sunburst differs from other ChalleNGe programs: In partnership with the Orange County School District, Sunburst can present a cadet a high school diploma — not just a GED credential, as most other academies offer.
“We can’t fix 100 percent of the people who come through here, but we’re sure going to try,” Armstrong said. “We’re going to give our students every opportunity we can to succeed.”
Numbers don’t lie, and statistics show retention is higher at Sunburst than anywhere else in the nation. “I am retaining more than I’m supposed to and feeding more than I’m supposed to, but we’re making it work,” he said.
Class 10 also broke new ground by being one of the only academies nationwide with a 50/50 ratio of female and male cadets. Schools around the nation are typically male-heavy, but Armstrong said strong marketing has made the difference.
The measure of success, he said, is not just how many graduates an academy produces, but also how many actively engaged members of society it propels toward future success. For this reason, Sunburst goes far beyond the mandatory one-year obligation to stay in touch with and support a cadet. The school has established partnerships with local businesses such as grocery stores and retail shops, which look to Sunburst graduates to fill entry-level positions, and the school engages community members to become mentors for graduates.
“When I explain the return to society with helping these students, it really interests the local community,” Armstrong said. “It’s a philanthropic way for them to give back without requiring too much time.”
Now it seems that finding Sunburst candidates who realize they are not on the right path and are ready to commit to change may not be too hard after all. “I’m happy I chose to come here,” said Daisy Almanza, 16, of Harbor City, Calif., who signed up for the academy singlehandedly, filling out the initial paperwork alone. “Knowing people care about me, want me to succeed in life, is really nice.”