By Benita M. Dodd
Dr. Roger Lotson (left) looks on as his cadets at the Georgia Youth ChalleNGe Academy at Fort Stewart, near Savannah, share their experiences with visitors.
Eighty percent of Georgia’s students graduate from high school. What happens to the one in five who don’t?
Michael Boggs, now a Georgia Supreme Court Justice, was co-chairman of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform when he remarked that he counted just 34 high school graduates among the first 6,000 criminal defendants he dealt with in felony criminal court in six rural counties.
Twenty-five years ago, concerned about a report that declared high school dropouts the greatest domestic threat to national security, U.S. Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia and John McCain of Arizona formed the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program.
Today, 40 Youth ChalleNGe Academy programs exist in 27 states and territories, turning around the lives of at-risk students ages 16-18 before they end up in the justice system. The pre-emptive approach makes sense: It costs $90,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile offender. It costs $15,000 to save one dropout through the five-month YCA program.
Georgia has three military-style academies: at Fort Stewart near Savannah, Fort Gordon near Augusta and in Milledgeville. In 25 years, they have graduated 16,000 students from all 159 counties. The 50th class graduates at Fort Stewart on June 16.
The Youth ChalleNGe Academy Foundation, a nonprofit that provides scholarships and support for the Georgia academies, hosted civic leaders in May on a tour of the Fort Stewart campus, one of the first 10 in the nation.
Ninety percent of the staff are former military, including its director, Dr. Roger Lotson, a Navy veteran. The program is voluntary, accepting dropouts ages 16-18 who are willing to turn their lives around. Every student wears a uniform; each has a mentor. Housed in state facilities, the schools’ operations are 75 percent federally funded, and the YCA must report to Congress on graduates’ progress.
“We want them to have sustainable futures,” Lotson said. “If Johnny leaves the program and goes back to his former lifestyle, then we have failed.”
The routine is intensive: Cadets wake up at 5 a.m. and end their school day at 6:30 p.m., studying through lunch and dinner. There is some Saturday school as well as vocational training, extracurricular activities and community service.
Some of his cadets explained why they have not quit.
“I have a brother who’s 4 years old. I would not like him to go down the track that I was going,” said one. “He thinks I’m in the Army right now.”
“I wasn’t going to have a home to go back to,” said another.
Discipline is firm but compassionate. “We’ve accepted the challenge to understand what these cadets are going through,” Lotson said.
He told of one cadet who “went ballistic” after his sergeant threw away his old tennis shoes and replaced it with a new pair.
“Our sergeant could have just jumped on him because he was insubordinate. But that sergeant had enough self-discipline to slow down and listen to the cadet’s story; he wanted to understand what the cadet was going through.”
The cadet was upset because his mother had worked overtime to buy the sneakers.
“He said, ‘Those shoes were important to me.’ The sergeant went to the trash, found those raggedy old shoes and gave them back.”
The impressive efforts yield impressive results. A study found that for every dollar invested in the program, the return is $2.66. Ninety-two percent of graduates continue their education, enter the military or find jobs. The average student earns six credits in the five months. Imagine that: A former dropout completing twice the credits in half the time of a traditional school year.
Their pride in their accomplishments shines through. But there’s more to do: The next hurdle is to find a congressional champion to renew their federal grant for the Job ChalleNGe program, which funds a supplemental five-month program of occupational skills training. The program enrolled 284 cadets since 2016 and graduated 186, with 96 percent earning college diplomas. That funding is slated to end in December.
To find out more, visit www.georgiayouthchallenge.org or call 1-800-278-2233.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (June 8, 2018). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.