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Failing student finds success in Challenge Academy

Jason Gordon was cutting classes and receiving poor grades, but he found a way to turn it around and graduate early with academic honors. In the fall, Gordon, 17, was a Superior High School junior doing "stupid stuff." He was lost in the classroo...

Jason Gordon was cutting classes and receiving poor grades, but he found a way to turn it around and graduate early with academic honors.

In the fall, Gordon, 17, was a Superior High School junior doing "stupid stuff." He was lost in the classroom. Gordon knew he wasn't headed in the right direction, he said.

The change came when a friend asked him what he was planning for his future and gave him a brochure to the National Guard Challenge Academy.

The academy is a program that reshapes the lives of 16- to 18-year-old at-risk teens in a structured, military-style environment in Fort McCoy. The program is funded by the state and federal government and is free for students.

Gordon, his mom and grandmother looked into the academy. He started in January, and graduated Saturday in Stevens Point with 71 cadets from 32 Wisconsin counties.

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"Time went by pretty fast." he said. "If you don't smart off and do what you're told it goes faster and easier for you," he said.

The program builds its cadets' academic ability, character, self-confidence and discipline during a 22-week residential training program.

It's completely voluntary. Kids in the program are usually dropouts or failing in school and know they need to turn their lives around but don't know how to do that on their own, said Pete Blum, National Guard Challenge Academy deputy director.

"The big focus for these kids (is) the character development portion of the program," he said. "It's amazing what you see when you take a kid out of their environment."

The kids can't flip a switch and change what they're doing. Time at the academy allows them to look at their life and habits and begin to make a change, he said.

The program is just like basic training. Cadets live in barracks, do physical training and participate in drill teams and parades, Gordon said.

The academy was hard to get used to at first. It's hard to have someone yelling in your face telling you what you can and cannot do, Gordon said.

"It feels like they're not being fair, but it's pretty easy -- do what you got to do," he said.

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During the first two weeks, new students are pre-cadets, they are told not to talk and are taught how to march, raise a flag, clean barracks and even brush their teeth in the proper manner. Cadets already know how to brush their teeth, but not how the instructors want them to brush, Gordon said.

After the first few weeks the cadets get to do some interesting stuff. Activities at the academy include archery, rock climbing, camping, repelling down at 55-foot tower and other activities. A few times the cadets visited veterans at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Tomah. Another time they marched in a parade, Gordon said.

The military-style activities are entwined through the program with academic classes and physical training.

Gordon enjoyed school at the academy. Attending class every day and knowing what is being taught gives a person more confidence, he said.

He finished his work during study hall and received academic excellence for his hard work, he said.

Gordon received his High School Equivalency Diploma while at the academy and finished high school a year early.

Now Gordon plans to work and save money, so he can get his own place to live. He plans to attend flight school and become a commercial pilot or attend Fond du Lac Community College to study physical education and nutrition.

After graduation each teen is assisted with his or her goals by a hometown mentor for the next year. Cadets choose positive adults in their lives to be mentors, Blum said.

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"Even though these kids are struggling, they know who's positive in their life," he said.

Following graduation, mentors meet with cadets once a week to support them in pursuing a job or attending school.

Gordon said if he hadn't participated in the National Guard Challenge Academy he'd "just be doing the same dumb stuff I was doing before," he said. "It does feel good that I'm done with high school, and I'm going to college in fall."

More than 60,000 teens have successfully completed National Guard programs in 26 states nationwide since 1993.

Wisconsin's program began in 1998. More than 90 percent of cadets who finish the academy receive their High School Equivalency Diploma and 80 percent stay out of trouble with the law.

"At times it can feel -- it really sucks, and you want to quit, but just don't give up on yourself and do what you got to do," Gordon said. "It's a good place to go if you're not on the right path to graduate ... It is really worth it."

Anna Kurth covers education. Call her at (715) 395-5019 or e-mail akurth@superiortelegram.com .

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