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First class of at-risk teens set for academy
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There’s a new lesson plan for underachieving at-risk 16 to 18 year olds.

Starting in January, the doors will open to the Discovery Challenge Academy located at the Sharpe Depot complex in Lathrop. It is designed for those teens that have dropped out, have severe truancy issues, are behind in credits, and are at risk for not graduating on time. The academy has a 90 percent success rate based on cadets completing high school and securing full-time jobs or advancing to college.

The first class of 150 cadets — 100 males and 50 females — are being recruited from 39 counties extending from Madera County to the Oregon border. Many will have misdemeanors and come from families living in poverty. They will 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 12 months of follow up mentoring.

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.

Academics are taught in a classroom setting. 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 accepting responsibility 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.

Cadets also must perform 40 hours of community service.

The 76-week long program consists of three phases.

uA two-week evaluation to determine if applicants are prepared for the program’s rigors.

uA 20-week period that resembles a military boarding school with cadets living in barracks, eating in a base dining facility and attending school on base. 

uA year-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 Discovery Challenge Academy since its inception has had over 140,000 graduates nationally. Three out of every four graduates have received high school diplomas or a GED.

The program costs $14,000 per enrollee. Research shows that when pitted against the $40,000 per year cost of placing a youth in a juvenile detention facility, it cuts juvenile correctional 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.

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 are 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.