One of the education success stories in West Virginia is the Mountaineer Challenge Academy. The program, run by the National Guard, accepts at-risk youth between the ages of 16 to 18 who have fallen behind in their traditional public school and are in danger of dropping out.
The students, who go to the Academy in Preston County voluntarily, are immersed in a rigorous 22-week quasi-military training program, followed by a year-long follow-up program with a mentor.
The cadets live on campus, wear uniforms and are taught life coping skills, job skills, health and hygiene, citizenship, education excellence, service to the community, leadership/fellowship and physical training.
As part of their training, each cadet must complete a minimum of 40 hours of community service. The most recent class of 172 graduates spent over 8,000 hours on 118 projects.
Academy statistics show the cadets often come from difficult circumstances. In the most recent class, 107 cadets came from a single-parent household, 22 came from a home where neither biological parent was present. Five of the cadets were previously in state custody.
These teenagers fit the definition of those most likely to drop out of school, but the Academy statistics show that 75 to 80 percent of the cadets complete the program. Ninety percent of the most recent class earned their high school diploma.
They leave the Academy with important education and life skills that improve their chances of future success.
According to figures from the National Guard, nearly half the cadets from the most recent graduating class plan to enter the workforce, 20 percent say they are joining the military, another 17 percent are going to continue their training in a vocational/technical program and sixteen percent expect to enroll at a four-year college.
The legislation now under consideration at the State Capitol would grow the Mountaineer Challenge Academy program. The Preston County campus would essentially double in size to 600 cadets and a second Academy would be established in Fayette County.
The current annual budget for the Academy is $6 million—75 percent federal dollars and 25 percent from the state. That works out to about $15,000 per student (averaging two classes per year, at 200 students per class.) That’s not cheap; it’s nearly $3,000 higher than the per-student cost in a traditional public school.
However, the cost of losing these kids as dropouts is much higher. According to the National Dropout Prevention Center, high school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely than graduates to get arrested in their lifetime. Dropouts are also twice as likely to become parents while still in their teens. “Each year’s class of dropouts will cost the country over $200 billion during their lifetimes in lost earnings and unrealized tax revenue,” the Center reports.
One of the ways West Virginia can improve public education is to expand and replicate programs that work. The Mountaineer Challenge Academy is one such program.