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Youth Academy changing lives


BREMERTON – Teacher Tod Hall picks up a guitar and sits at the front of English class. Then, he starts singing, a soulful voice emerging about the impacts the Washington Youth Academy has had on his life and his students’ lives.

Some days, Hall stands in front of his class and teaches about sentence structure, verbs, nouns and the other assortment of knowledge required by state law. On this recent day in December, he has added a bit of music in his student’s lives – teaching about the structure of poetry and how words in song can be just as impactful as words on paper, if not more so.

And it’s working. His students, many of whom were on the verge of dropping out or had disciplinary issues before enrolling in the National Guard-run Washington Youth Academy, sit there enraptured.

Some go before the class and try a bit of their own songs – rapping or just singing a Capella. Each have taken turns writing their own lyrics on how the Youth Academy has changed their lives – just days before they are set to graduate.

As Hall finishes one verse, his students call for him to do more.

“No, no,” Hall said. “This will have to wait another time.”

There’s no arguing.

As the clock strikes on the hour, each of the uniformed students quickly prepare their belongings, stand at attention, move to the door and proceed in a clear and orderly fashion.  

Come graduation on Dec. 20, the students, who come from all parts of the state, will make choices as to their future. Some will return home to their old school. Some will find new schools. Others will just get their GED. Cadet Gregory Brychta said that he was going to give Running Start a try – a program that allows him to take college classes and earn both high school credit and college credit at the same time.

“I had a bad environment,” said Brychta, an 18-year-old from Silverdale. “And I have no plans on returning to that environment. I’ve made changes in my life and I don’t think I would have gotten as far as I have without the Washington Youth Academy.”

The Washington Youth 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 Washington Youth Academy is a quasi-military training and mentoring program for at-risk youth. 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 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 Academy staff are state employees of the Washington Military Department plus a principal and six teachers under contract from the Bremerton School District. The staff is trained to work with at-risk youth in a residential setting and employs a “hands-off” approach that is tough and disciplined, yet caring and respectful.

In one of teacher Richard Burleson’s math classes, 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.”


After completing the Challenge phase, students begin a 52-week post-residential phase where each student works with an adult role model in a one-on-one mentoring relationship. The adult mentor provides the student advice, guidance and support to help him/her continue the positive successes and direction achieved during the challenge phase.

Come Dec. 20, the academy is on track to graduate 144 students – the highest class ever served.

New classes start in January.

The program is voluntary and students from all over Washington State are eligible to apply and compete for admission. Students must be a high school dropout or expellee, age 16-18, a U.S. citizen and resident of Washington State. The applicant must never have been convicted of a felony and have no legal action pending, free of illegal drugs at time of enrollment and physically and mentally able to complete the program. The program is FREE to the applicant.

To apply, visit