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Big changes for WYA teens in 22 weeks


Cadets from all three platoons come together for a haka chant before commencement.

Sitting cross-legged in sweatpants on the ground of a school cafeteria, Bellingham teen Michael McCluskey touches his freshly shaven head and whispers, “What have I gotten myself into?”

He tries to stay quiet as peers around him shout “Yes, Sergeant!” and he tries not to look too hard at the adults in full military-style uniform moving up and down rows of fellow cadets.

“I made mistakes,” he says on Day Zero, just hours after his parents dropped him off. “I’m here at the Washington Youth Academy to get back on track, to get the credits I need to graduate.”


Cadet McCluskey on Day Zero.

Twenty-two weeks later, surrounded by those same cadets, he says he’s a brand new person, ready for life’s challenges and, most important, has the credits he needs to come back to Squalicum High School and graduate.

“I would never have made it without the Youth Academy,” he says again on June 17. “This is just so hard to leave.”


Cadet McCluskey at graduation

It’s an attitude shared by many of the 143 cadets, who recently graduated from cycle 2017-1.

The mission of the Washington Youth Academy is to provide a highly disciplined, safe and professional learning environment that empowers at-risk youth to improve their educational levels and employment potential and become responsible and productive citizens of the state of Washington. Established under authority of both federal and state law, the WYA is a state-run residential and post-residential intervention program for youth who have dropped out of high school or are at risk of dropping out.

After living on campus for nearly half a year, they return to their home community with the support of counselors and case managers and a mentor over the course of at least another year. Applications are now being accepted for Cycle 18-1. Cycle 17-2 starts July 15. Click here to ask our staff questions.

“Cadets have performed 9,221 hours of service to the community and that is worth over $277,000 in value to the community,” Director Larry Pierce said during commencement. “Cadets learn the intrinsic value of giving back to others without the expectation of anything.”


Cadet Sharp stands at attention in the Wolfpack barracks

Cadet Jonathan Sharp of Bellingham had a leadership role in the Wolfpack platoon, made up of 16- and 17-year-old guys. There’s also a platoon for guys up to 18 years old and an all-female platoon.

“The first two weeks of acclimation were really tough, but once academics started back up, the days went by faster,” Sharp said in a video posted on Facebook, where he showed off the barracks. “I’ve enjoyed it here. It’s what you make of it. You get out what you put into the program."

Taya Kingsborough of Lynden said the Youth Academy “is the last page in one of the longest chapters of our life. This program isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it.”

“Knowing our time as a platoon and as a company has come to an end has caused me to feel two of which ways,” she added in her commencement speech on YouTube. “I’m sad because it’s over but I’m so happy we made it. I’ve had huge triumphs here and big failures. And they were along with me every step of the way. My platoon was my shoulder to cry on and the hand to high five. On Day Zero, I had three sisters. And now on Day 154, I have 48 more.”


State Rep. Irwin with Cadet Robert.

Auburn teen A.J. Robert accomplished the rare feat of two graduations in a single weekend, able to recover his full eight credits from the Youth Academy and immediately transfer those credits back to Auburn High School to immediately get his high school diploma. He was a guest of his 31st District legislators in June and given an applause by legislators of the state House of Representatives while he was in the gallery. 

“You know, I honestly didn’t think this day would ever come,” Robert says. “I just owe so much to everyone who has been there for me – all the cadre and staff at the Youth Academy. My family, my platoon brothers. This is just so incredible. I have a second chance here.”

Robert said he even had a potential job lined up, thanks to the resume and job interview skills he gained at the Youth Academy.

Cadet Coronado is the second in her family to complete the program, with her sister Sophia graduating last December.

“I’ve made friendships here that will last a lifetime,” Coronado said. “This is probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.”


Students lift up their cadre Sgt. Williams before commencement.

Olympia teen Nikolai Shepherd said he wasn’t sure what to expect on his first day at the academy.

Then, Shepherd was told to do push ups. A lot of push ups. And that was just the first day, which he said he felt like a “pioneer exploring a new world.”

“As I was lying in bed on that first day, I remember Sgt. Borka saying, ‘Well, gentlemen. You just completed, Day Zero,” Shepherd said during his commencement speech, which is on YouTube. “I just laid there in awe knowing that one of the hardest days of my life didn’t even count toward my goal. It also changed my perspective and encouraged me. I had just completed this day: Day Zero. It showed me that my hard work was harder than I expected would get me through to who I truly wanted to be.”

“"This is the beginning, not the end,” Shepherd added. “Even though the hardships were difficult, and sometimes funny, we wouldn't have been able to overcome them without the help of our peers, our cadre and families."

Cadet Loie Black of Lacey said that the Youth Academy gave her an opportunity to hit re-start on her life.

“I made some bad choices when I was younger,” she said. “Today, I’m a completely new person.”

She had a leadership role as part of her all-female platoon called the Eagles. She, like other cadets, also learned job skills like how to craft a resume and go on a job interview as well as life-coping mechanisms

“I have so much to be grateful to the Academy for giving me this chance,” Black said.


Cadets Berrington and Rutherford stand exhausted following the Ranger Challenge.

Cadet Logan Berrington of Olympia said that he was especially proud to have completed a grueling all-day obstacle course called the Ranger Challenge, a voluntary exercise that put him through some of the hardest exercises and challenges he’s faced.

“But I overcame it all – with support from the cadre and my peers,” he said.

Tacoma teen Bronson Steele said he was frustrated with high school, his classmates and his focus.

“I need something like the Washington Youth Academy,” Steele said. “Normal high school just wasn’t working for me.”

Steele says his future lies with the Marine Corps. He’s already enlisted – and credits the Youth Academy with giving him the confidence he needs to be successful.

“I’m a better person today because of the teachers, the cadre and my platoon,” he said.


Cadet Steele stands at attention.