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Retired National Guardsmen Would Run Proposed Alternative School

June 25, 2007 — If a bill approved by a Senate committee Monday becomes law, the V.I. National Guard will run a new, quasi-military alternative school, giving dropouts a chance to get a high school diploma.
The Senate Education, Culture and Youth Committee approved the National Guard Youth Challenge Program Act at a meeting on St. Croix. If it passes the full Senate, the territory will join 25 other states and territories that have such Guard-run schools. The school would be called the Challenge Academy and would be a voluntary, coeducational, 17-month program for 16-18 year old high school dropouts.
It consists of a five-and-a-half month quasi-military phase, during which students would live on base or in National Guard dorms, followed by a full year of post-residential classes. Students have to meet the minimum requirements for a general educational development degree (GED), and school graduates would receive GEDs, according to testimony at Monday's meeting. However, the text of the bill and online information regarding the nationwide program suggest participants may get a high school diploma, distinct from the GED program.
Federal funds would pay 60 percent of the program's costs, with the remaining 40 percent covered by local funds and in-kind contributions. V.I. National Guard Major Eugene Canegata said retired guardsmen would run the school so the program could not be jeopardized by possible overseas deployment of active-duty personnel.
“The Youth Challenge Program is a community-based program that leads, trains and mentors at-risk youth so that they may become productive citizens in America's future,” said V.I. National Guard Adjutant General Renaldo Rivera. “In essence, it is the nation's way of targeting youth who are the greatest risk for substance abuse, teen pregnancy, delinquency and criminal activity. We at the Virgin Islands National Guard would like to be a player in assisting our troubled youth.”
The program has social value and makes good fiscal sense, Rivera said.
“It is free of charge to its participants,” he said. “Even though it would cost approximately $14,000 for each youth to complete the 17-month program. … I recently had the opportunity to see first hand the youngsters in action when I traveled to Anchorage, Ala. They were well disciplined and portrayed excellent examples of persons who are seeking to better their lives.”
The Legislature has looked at the program before, and previously appropriated $1.9 million to renovate or acquire a facility for the program. Sen. Louis Hill asked what had occurred with the prior appropriation. “There was to be a meeting with then-Commissioner of Education Noreen Michael,” Canegata said. “But that never happened. The meeting to see about where the facility would be and how to acquire it … was never held.”
Several times senators asked whether the program was, or could become, something like a boot camp.
“'Challenge Academy' — is that a nice name for a boot camp?” Sen. Carlton Dowe asked Rivera.
“In boot camps you really have a rough environment,” Rivera said. “We are not trying to make this a rough camp. … We want to bring in the high school dropouts and help them get a GED.”
“Of the young people who face these challenges, it comes from a lack of discipline,” Dowe said. “I want to see some discipline as part of what we are doing. There must be some kind of uniformity to change the course of their lives. So I have no problem with the name (boot camp).”
Federal regulations establishing the program require that it be voluntary and focused on academics, Rivera explained. Canegata elaborated on how the program is distinct from a boot camp.
“'Voluntary' here means more like an option,” Canegata said. “Taking you away from those distractions is what Youth Challenge is all about. Now if that doesn’t work, then maybe boot camp. The difference is boot camp is geared more to correcting behavioral problems.”
All the committee members in attendance expressed strong support for the program, and several said they would like some more rigorous, behavior-oriented programs as well.
“We are all trying to find ways — corrective measures — to deal with the aberrant behavior of some of our young people,” Committee Chairman Liston Davis said. “We need to stop the hemorrhaging we are experiencing. … That’s why I am ready to support any measure to … rescue them before it is too late to call the Coast Guard out for them. But if it is a voluntary program, we wonder what kind of participation we’re goring to get among the target population.”
Hill said a second, more disciplinary program would also be a good idea.
“One reason I think we have to explore a mandatory program is to get at those who don’t have the support that would have them volunteering for this,” Hill said “It is something we probably do need to do. Of course, that exposes you to the problems of students who are not just dropouts having a hard time, but those who are bordering on being criminal.”
The bill was approved with recommendations for several technical changes. Now it goes to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary and, if approved there, to the Senate floor for a final vote.
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