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ChalleNGe Academy helps students back on the road to success


Peyton Dalrymple stands in the barracks of the Washington Youth Academy in Bremerton.

ChalleNGe Academy helps students back on the road to success

Peyton Dalrymple said it was apathy and depression that made him skip classes at Elma High School and never turn in his homework. After a while, he just gave up – and his transcript showed just that with a whole host of failing classes.

“I’d rather play video games,” the McCleary 17-year-old said. “I just didn’t care. I was looking at just dropping out of high school. That was the road I was on.”

Then, his mom heard about a free quasi-military-type school that Dalrymple says got his life back on track. He graduated from the Washington Youth Academy in December and was back at Elma High School in January.

“The structure doesn’t give you time to do wrong, which is perfect for me because I always got distracted before,” Dalrymple said. “Here, you’re forced to do something, your schedule is always planned for you every minute of the day – whether it’s sleeping or academics or marching. I was part of the Sapper’s unit, where we went to school and read to kids and did a lot of community service. It was very fun.”


Second Platoon stands at attention.

The Washington Youth Academy is a quasi-military training and mentoring program for at-risk youth with its campus in Bremerton. It’s free and part of the state’s public school system. The goal of the program is to give youth a second chance to become responsible and productive citizens by helping them improve their life skills, education levels and employment potential.

The carrot is a valuable 8 credits in high school that, typically, can be earned in a little more than a year, but because the students live at the campus in Bremerton, they can fulfill the credits in just 22 weeks. Students earn the credits and then transfer those credits back to their original high school so they can get their high school diploma on time. The academy is a division of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program. Established under authority of both federal and state law, the Youth Academy is a state-run residential and post-residential intervention for youth who have dropped out of high school or are at risk of dropping out.

The program incorporates a highly structured format, with an emphasis on student discipline and personal responsibility to provide a positive, safe, and secure learning environment.

The Washington Youth Academy is part of the National Guard’s larger Youth ChalleNGe Program and is one of 37 ChalleNGe academies throughout the country. To date, more than 140,000 youths have graduated nationwide since the program began in 1993.

“We’re averaging over 9,000 graduates a year now from the 37 programs,” said Jeff White, the chief of the National Guard Bureau Athletics and Youth Development, which oversees the Youth ChalleNGe program. “And we have two more programs aiming to come online this year.”


Peyton Dalyrymple prepares his uniform after returning from an extended
Thanksgiving break to visit with family in Elma.

The concept of ChalleNGe resulted from several studies done to determine ways to engage those who had dropped out of high school or who were having trouble with school and in danger of expulsion or dropping out, said White.

“They were trying to determine how best to take some of these disenfranchised students and empower them to become successful young adults,” he said. “The research determined a quasi-military discipline and structure was the best way to turn these young people around and enable them to find a successful path in life.”

Enter the National Guard.

“It was determined that the National Guard was the best, most efficient fit for it,” said White. “They’re well established and experienced in providing that military structure and discipline. The National Guard also has a presence in every zip code throughout our great nation and, since Guard members are essentially volunteers by nature, what better pool from which to acquire mentors and role models for these misguided youth?”

Plus, White added, as a community-based organization, the Guard already had many relationships in place at the state and local level.

“It was a structure that could be used to implement it without changing the world,” he said.

For many cadets, though, the 17-month-long program has, indeed, changed their world for the better, staff said.

The program is broken into two phases. The first is a 22-week, in-residence phase that focuses on teaching academics, life and job skills. That’s followed by a year-long, non-resident phase where cadets work with a mentor from their community. They are also required to check in and work with their ChalleNGe academy staff to track their progress to ensure they are reaching pre-determined, follow-on goals the cadets develop and outline during the program’s residential phase.

“You can’t just place the cadets in a program where they’re isolated for 5 and a half months and the only people they talk with are their instructors and cadre, then release them with a ‘See you later. Good luck!’ said White. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘What’s next?’ for these youth.”

The mentors assist during that transition, but it’s during the residential phase where the biggest changes are usually seen in the cadets. Dalrymple said a lifelong family friend will serve as his mentor.


Andres Acoba, left, served as one of Dalrymple's cadre, which serves as

part drill sergeant, part advisor during the residential part of the Y

outh Academy program.

Cadets are also required to wear a uniform, conduct physical training, respond quickly when given instructions and are marched in formation to and from class, meals and other events.

“Here, it’s all about one team, one fight,” Dalrymple says. “That’s frustrating at times because when one person gets in trouble, and does something wrong, everyone gets in trouble. … The toughest thing was just being still, not talking, not being distracted by things. But, it’s not really that hard if you just do what they say. No one else seemed to like the uniform, but I thought they were very comfortable.”

While a military structure and environment is used and Guard members are present to provide support, ChalleNGe does not push cadets toward a military career, White noted. Cadets have sole discretion on choosing their appropriate career path after graduating from the ChalleNGe program.

“Our goal is not focused on creating a military pipeline,” said White. “We’re trying to create productive, successful citizens who go back home and do good things.”

During a recent post-residential graduation ceremony at the Washington Youth Academy, members of the class of 2014-2 came back and just 15 out of the 144 graduates had entered the military.


Pictures showing Dalrymple on day of enrollment and before graduation.

While at the academy, cadets attend a variety of core classes to focus and prepare them to either earn their GED certificate, attain a high school diploma, or return to high school. At the Washington Youth Academy, besides the fundamentals, there’s also a video class and a robotics class.

In one of Washington Youth Academy teacher Richard Burleson’s math classes, during a recent tour, two students are talking when they should be doing their work. Burleson can’t tell which students are talking so he just announces that whoever is talking needed to drop to the ground and do 35 pushups.

The two students don’t hesitate and do just that – as Youth Academy Director Larry Pierce walks in the door, a smile on his face.

“There’s respect here,” Pierce said. “There’s a code – and the students who go through the program understand and accept it. … We’re the last chance for many of these kids. We are changing lives.”


Teacher Tod Hall stands in front of a yellow brick, meant to
represent a student, who left the program.

Teacher Tod Hall points to a program he helped implement last year where a brick is placed at a flag pole to remember a student who has left the voluntary program. That made members of each of the Academy’s three platoons work harder to keep their fellow cadets in check and prevent drop outs. 

The specific academic requirements, and whether cadets earn a GED certificate, high school diploma or credits toward returning to a traditional high school, are based on state education department requirements and vary between ChalleNGe academies.

“We establish minimum tasks and standards for each of the eight core components that include academic excellence, job skills, health and hygiene, responsible citizenship, service to the community, leadership/followership, physical fitness, and life coping skills,” White said.

Over the past 20-plus years the program has been an astounding success, said White, adding that the vast majority of graduates go on to earn high school diplomas and other degrees, specialized certifications or become active in the community, job market or other fields.

“It’s hard to hide that kind of success,” said White.

Even those cadets who may not earn their GED certificate right away come through with skills that can help them earn that and more down the road.

“They may not achieve their GED certificate during the residential portion,” said White. “Perhaps they were too far behind. But they do obtain a broad range of life skills that will help them create a successful path for themselves and hopefully continue on and get that GED or high school diploma.”

Success is a relative concept and can’t necessarily be measured in terms of diplomas or degrees earned, Rose observed.

“Not all cadets continue on to college,” he said. “But they can secure and retain a good job. They can grow up and have families and provide for their loved ones. Those are success stories too.”


Peyton Dalrymple shakes the hand of Congressman Derek Kilmer

as Major General Bret D. Daugherty, The Adjutant General of the

Washington National Guard, waits his turn to offer his congratulations

to the cadet.

Regardless of what led each cadet to the Youth ChalleNGe program, each must voluntarily elect to enter the program.

“You can’t be forced to attend a ChalleNGe academy,” said White. “The student must sign their name and complete a personal interview after their parents leave the room.”

The goal is to ensure the cadets are committed to investing in the program and themselves and truly want to be there.

“They have to be willing to change,” said White. “If they’re not willing, no matter what we try to teach them, it’s just going to go in one ear and out the other.”

This latest cycle of WYA cadets had 152 graduates, more cadets than any previous class in the history of the Academy, established in Bremerton in 2009.

“Now, I’m going to graduate on time in June with my class,” Dalrymple says. “I probably wouldn’t have graduated for another year. I probably would have dropped out. Now, I have a future. I’m thinking either joining the U.S. Army or maybe an apprenticeship at somewhere like the Puget Sound Shipyard. …

“My high school, my friends, none of them knew what this program was,” Dalrymple said. “No one around my high school even knows about this program and I’m going to go back and tell my friends about this program and see if our counselors can work this into their options they tell students about.”