BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — Climbing temperatures and high tensions spread like a wildfire as parents dropped off their sons and daughters to the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy at the Battle Creek Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Michigan, July 13, 2014. Out of 170 applicants, 164 cadets registered on drop-off day for class cycle 31, and they are expected to graduate December 13.
Parents will not be able to contact the child during the first two weeks of selection phase, which evaluates the cadet performance and attitude to improve their life. After this phase-in process, cadets begin the 20-week challenge course.
Detroit resident Latrica Smith, mother of 16-year-old Aquan Gordon, shared her excitement and nervousness because her son would be away from her for five and half months.
“I was looking for different schools for him to go to and I stumbled upon the youth challenge website,” said Smith. “I liked that it offered military structure and discipline – this is what Aquan needs.”
The Michigan Youth Challenge Academy, run by the National Guard, is a complete voluntary program for at-risk teens ages 16 to 18. Cadets reside at the academy for five and a half months in a structured environment to earn their GED and up to 21 college credits from Kellogg Community College.
“Typically, the kids search online for this program and come here to be successful,” said Jimmie Jones, MYCA operations supervisor. “When the program started, the cadets were given the chance to walk out and leave, but our focus has shifted and we do our best to keep them here.”
James Luce, MYCA Director, said the program began in 1999 with 141 students, but only 51 students graduated. Since then, graduation numbers have increased because of policy change and in the 15 years of the program’s existence, 2,781 students have graduated.
Ernest Drake, the recruiter for MYCA, explained his job is not an easy task, but he makes it a vital point to reach students in the classroom, in courts and the Department of Human Services facilities. Drake travels across Michigan, with major emphasis in the “struggle areas,” to reach students and parents. Once parents contact him by phone and listen to his spiel of the MYCA, he hopes it will persuade them to come to orientation.
Drake conducted eight orientations before the start of the class cycle in various locations in Michigan. During the orientation, he separates the parent from the potential cadet and predominantly speaks to the cadet about their future.
“It’s a 17-month program; for five and a half months the cadets are here and for the remaining year they work with a mentor,” he said. “Only a small percentage returns to high school, but most earn their GED and eventually go on to higher learning.”
This quasi-military organized academy teaches students the basic fundamental life skills, provides the opportunity to get physically active and offers a trained staff that constantly supervises cadets.
“Despite our military approach, there is no military obligation,” Drake said. Though, he did mention in each class cycle, roughly eight to ten students have joined the Army National Guard.
“At first, I didn’t want to come, but once I went to orientation it made me want to go,” said Brennon Frye, 16-year-old from Leslie, Mich. “I was expelled twice from school and after I realized what I could get from here, I know I can graduate.”
Prior to coming MYCA, Frye attended Midcourse Correction, a weekend challenge course for at-risk students.
Seventeen-year-old Daishaun Ward lifted his orange gym bag onto his shoulders as he waited in the long line for in-processing. The previous Martin Luther King Jr. High School student said he was happy to attend the academy. “I saw that it was a good opportunity so I took it and my family is happy that I’ll be here too.” Ward quickly hugged his family goodbye before rushing inside the corridor to face MYCA cadre.
The academy provides cadets 800 hours of class time and 40 hours of community service.
Luce said it’s the student’s obligation to help fellow citizens that’s why the program incorporates community service time.
“We give them the tools to make it in life, we provide the opportunity, but the students did it,” said Luce. “They had the chance to walk out that door to leave but they didn’t.”
With a 97 percent success rate of cadets successfully graduating the course, “It’s a crime that people don’t know this program exist,” he said. Luce has been with the academy since the beginning and he doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon.
For more information on the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy, visit the organization’s website at www.miycp.org.
Story and photos by Sgt. Alexandria Jones, Michigan National Guard Public Affairs