Military-style academy takes first students

discovery challenge
Chief Matthew Reece outside the Discovery Challenge facility at Sharpe Depot in Lathrop.
Photo by Wayne Denning

LATHROP — Andres Delgado will graduate from high school this spring, an accomplishment he didn’t believe was attainable.

“I was messing up at school, and I wasn’t doing anything,” he said.

Then he heard about the San Luis Obispo-based Grizzly Youth Academy, one of only two California National Guard Youth ChalleNGe programs targeted at helping 16 to 18-year-old at-risk students graduate on time.

“So I checked it out, and I ended up following through,” said Delgado.

The program enabled Delgado to catch up on high school credits and motivated him to the join the Army National Guard last August.

Beginning in January, students will have access to Discovery ChalleNGe Academy, the state’s third such program and the first in Northern California. Situated on the Sharpe Army Depot in Lathrop, the Discovery ChalleNGe Academy will serve students from Madera to the Oregon stateline.

Discovery Academy’s first group of applicants arrive at Sharpe Depot on Jan. 14. After successfully completing a two-week acclimation phase, students earn the title of cadet.

“Our target is 150 cadets, and we will grow to what our other programs serve which is 220 cadets every six months,” said Warrant Officer Matthew Reece, Discovery ChalleNGe  Academy Recruiting, Placement, Mentoring supervisor.

The 17-and-a-half-month-long ChalleNGe program consists of a 22-week residential period followed by a 12-month post-residential mentoring phase.

During Discovery’s residential component, 100 boys and 50 girls will reside in barracks-like dorms, wear uniforms and attend classes onsite. They will be expected to wake up every morning at 5:30, make their beds, do their own laundry and participate in team-building exercises, all while under 24-hour-a-day supervision by a cadre of 42 National Guard soldiers and airmen.

The goal is to distance cadets from the causes of their destructive behavior.

“We take students out of any type of negative environment, and we give them a highly structured positive learning environment with no distractions,” said Reece. “There are no cell phones or TVs or anything like that. We give them an environment to learn and grow away from any negative influences.”

Attending the Discovery ChalleNGe Academy is strictly voluntary, and there is no military enlistment requirement upon completion.

“We’re looking for motivation and commitment. No one can be forced to attend this academy. The student has to want this for themselves,” Reece said. “The opportunities here are about $22,000 per student, and that’s free. It’s paid for by the federal and state dollars, so we want to make sure that if they do show up on day one that they’re going to see the program through until the end.”

The California National Guard will operate Discovery ChalleNGe Academy in partnership with the San Joaquin County Office of Education, enabling cadets to earn up to 62 high school credits.

“That partnership is key,” Reece said. “We are three of just a handful of programs in the nation that even offer an educational component. Instead of military staff teaching out of a GED prep book, we have accredited teachers from SJCOE.”

Seven full-time contracted teachers, including one special education instructor and a counselor, will teach A-G certified courses including math, English, science, history, government and an elective such as visual and performing arts courses at the Discovery Academy.

The cadets will attend six periods of classes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily and will be assigned homework each night.

“A lot of our teachers have moved over from our one.Program. They’re used to working with the toughest of the tough and the neediest of students in the area and have had great success,” said SJCOE Administrator Brandy Thurman.

Cadets will be grouped into six sections based upon student safety, credits needed and academic levels.

After completing the 22-week residential program, cadets will participate in a 12-month post-residential phase working with a mentor to ensure they maintain 30 hours or more a week of education — either completing high school or moving onto college — employment, or military service.

Many of the younger cadets return to a traditional high school setting.

“Towards the end of the residential program, we shift gears with the Guard. We ease off and get them acclimated back to what they’re going to be facing in their high schools,” said Thurman.  “So, they ease off on the structure like the marching, and things like that during the last month.”

The success of the ChalleNGe programs is impressive. Graduating academy cadets have a 90 percent placement rate back to school, work, a combination of the two or into the military.

“This has made a huge impact and really it’s a game changer for their lives,” Thurman said.

Delgado is part of that success rate and he is eager to pass the good news along.

“I’ve recommended it to a lot of my friends who are messing up, but it’s up to them to take advantage of it,” he said.


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