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Getting at risk teens on track
Cadets take direction from a California National Guard officer. - photo by Photo courtesy Discovery Challenge Academy

A 17-year-old girl who was living on the street with her 23-year-old boyfriend is now on a path to succeed in life.
So is a 17-year-old boy now running marathons who 82 pounds ago struggled to barely run a mile.
They are students at the Discovery Challenge Academy at the Sharpe Army Depot on Roth Road in Lathrop.
One of three  such academies that the California National Guard operates in conjunction with education entities. The academy’s mission is to work with youth between 16 and 18 who are at the greatest risk with the highest potential for reversal.
There are 100 males and 50 females from 39 counties Northern California enrolled in each 22 week session. They are given the opportunity to earn 62 high school credits, learn skills to succeed, and develop discipline.
“These kids are not bad kids,” National Guard Sgt. Maria Estrada told Manteca Rotarians on Thursday during a noon meeting at Ernie’s Rendezvous Room. “They just need vital life skills and get motivation.”
Admission is on a voluntary basis. They can’t be charged with or have felonies. They must be drug free meaning they have 30 days to come clean or they won’t be allowed into the program. Some have dropped out of school. Others have severe truancy problems, are behind in credits, and are at risk for not graduating on time.
“We work so that they can rejoin their classmates and succeed so they can graduate with them,” Estrada said.
The national academy system has a 90 percent success rate based on cadets completing high school and securing full-time jobs or advancing to college.
Many will have misdemeanors and come from families living in poverty. At the academy they learn life-coping skills, leadership, self-discipline, and leadership. They also can earn a year’s of high school credit during the residential program spanning 5.5 months. It then has 13 months of follow up mentoring.
But before they start the program, there is a two-week evaluation to determine if applicants are prepared for the program’s rigors. If they are, they are issued uniforms in place of their sweats. Estrada noted when discipline problems occur the most frequent punishment is turning in their uniforms and reverting to sweats.
Estrada said it is something that the cadets do not want to happen as it shows their peers that they made a mistake.
Cadets are separated
by gender in classrooms
Academics are taught in a classroom setting where boys and girls are separated by gender so there are no distractions. There are typically 10 field trips that may include museums, universities, the State Capitol, and live theater performances.
 The military staff/cadre is in charge of the rest of the academy’s training. That training covers learning the importance of being prompt, dressing appropriately, focusing on homework and daily tasks, and accept responsibilities for their actions.
Physical training as well as marching or drill and ceremonies along with barracks inspections are part of the program. The goal is to instill cooperation, tolerance of others, teamwork, and ethical behavior. The military staff/cadre is responsible not just for the cadet’s physical fitness but also their personal hygiene, as well as their health and welfare.
“We have to get them healthy and get them in the right state of mind before they can learn to succeed,” Estrada said.
The sergeant stressed learning to follow is the critical first step to learning to lead.
“In order to know how to lead, you have to know how to follow,” she said.
Cadets also must perform 40 hours of community service. It includes helping set up events such as the Great Valley Bookest and joining efforts such as filling sandbags during the February levee emergency south of Manteca.

Their says are
strictly regimented
Their days are strictly regimented. A typical day starts at waking up at 5 a.m. and then hitting the latrine and making their beds that are “tossed” requiring them to do over again if they are not done right. Chow is from 6 to 7 a.m. followed by chores such as doing their own laundry, cleaning the base and cleaning the latrine. Then at 7:30 a.m. they march to class. School runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. They march back to the barracks where they engage in physical exercise from 5 to 6 p.m. before having dinner. After dinner is quiet time for studying. It is lights out at 8:30 p.m.
The academy also offers a variety of clubs and groups including a running club, an alcoholic anonymous group, and others.
“They aren’t sleeping in until 11 a.m. and going to bed at 3 a.m.,” Estrada said.
The degree of focus and discipline they develop often surprises parents.
“I had one mother said she couldn’t believe that her son was waking up every day at 5 a.m. and going for a run,” Estrada said.
The Lathrop academy is the third of its kind in California. There  are 37 such academies nationwide. Tuition, room, and board are provided at no-cost. The academy is funded by the federal and state governments and operates in a partnership with the San Joaquin County Office of Education.
The program costs $22,000 per enrollee as it covers instruction, room and board, and uniforms. National research shows that when pitted against the $40,000 per year cost of placing a youth in a juvenile detention facility, it cuts juvenile correction costs by $109 million annually. At the same time $31.7 million yearly is saved based on students getting GEDs as opposed to trying to secure it in the future with that cost savings reflected in what would have been spent for on-going education costs. An estimated 20 percent of the cadets enrolled are taken off federal assistance programs.

Community mentors
are key to success
A key to the program’s success is the follow up mentoring that relies heavily on community volunteers who must pass background screenings. The 13-month long mentorship completed in the cadet’s community with the guidance and assistance of a custom matched, screened, and trained mentor.
The mentoring program is the nation’s second largest after Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
While the Department of Defense wants those that complete the program to be eligible to join the Armed Forces it is not a requirement that any of the students enlist.
The Challenge Academy since its inception nationally has had over 140,000 graduates nationally. Three out of every four graduates have received high school diplomas or GED.
There is awaiting list of 300 applicants from 39 counties extending from Madera County to the Oregon border. The next session starts Jan. 14. The second sessions of each year gets underway in July.
Applicants must be 16 on or before the first day of the academy and cannot turn 19 before the start date. They must have no pending charges, felony convictions or deferred entry of judgment. They must be a legal resident of the United States and a California resident. They must volunteer to attend. They also must be drug free. All candidates will be drug tested.
More information can be found going to or the same on Facebook.
You can ask for an application or apply to be a mentor by calling 1.844.633.3301.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email