Last January during his State of the State Address, Governor Jim Justice announced a $3.3 million investment to create a second Mountaineer Challenge Academy in West Virginia.
The proposed Academy at the former WVU Tech campus in Montgomery will emulate the existing program at Camp Dawson in Preston County.
“The work the National Guard has done with the Challenge Academy and the Job Challenge Program… is off the charts,” Justice said. “They’ve graduated 4,663 kids and the number of lives that have been changed for the better is absolutely amazing.”
Justice is often given to hyperbole, but not this time. It’s hard to overvalue the success stories of the high school age students who graduate from the Academy.
The Academy takes at-risk youth and immerses them in a rigorous 22-week quasi-military training program, followed by a year of mentoring.
They learn discipline, structure, life, health and job skills… things that many of us take for granted, but these students were not getting because of their home lives.
Every year, the Academy brings some of the students to the Capitol and I get a chance to meet with a few and interview them on my radio show.
William and Jacey have similar stories. Both came from broken homes. At one point, William was living in a mobile home with no heat or electricity and very little food. Jacey was living with her father until he was jailed on drug charges.
(Watch my interview with the students here.)
“I’d gotten with the wrong crowd,” Jacey told me, adding later that had she not gone to the Academy she would probably be “locked up” today.
For Jacey, the Academy was a significant change from her wayward lifestyle, but she enjoys the structure. “I love the intensity,” she said. “Everything is going good right now.”
Her post graduation plans include joining the military. “I want to fight for my country,” she said.
William says the Academy has been tough, but also “a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “I’m glad I did come.” Without the Challenge Academy, he said he would be “completely lost, sir. I’d probably be on the streets… I was before.”
Their stories are typical. Statistics from one recent class show 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 kids are among the most likely students to drop out of school, but Academy statics show 75 to 80 percent complete the program. Ninety percent of the cadets received their high school diplomas in one recent class.
The cost per student at the Academy is about $15,000—a combination of federal and state dollars. That’s about $3,000 more than the cost of a traditional high school student.
However, when you meet the kids, hear the stories and see the results, it’s evident this is one of the best investments West Virginia can make.