Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Washington Youth Academy: Transforming Dropouts Into Graduates

For some high school students, a party habit can lead to to failed classes and even a trip to urgent care. But when they do decide they need to graduate, it may already be too late for them.

But there is an option some families in Washington state have turned to.

A free program called the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe is held on the campus of the Washington Youth Academy in Bremerton. Teens can recover up to eight high school credits, or a little over a year’s worth of classes through their state’s chapter.

But unlike most military style schools, these teens choose to come here. The students, or cadets as they’re called, want a second chance. For five months, cadets eat, sleep, train, and learn at the academy. They have one thing in common: they don’t have enough credits to graduate high school.

Larry Pierce has been director of Washington state’s chapter of ChalleNGe since 2010. Since the Washington Youth Academy’s doors first opened, more than 2,000 cadets have graduated.

“We don’t make it easy for a cadet to leave,” Pierce said. “If we’ve got someone that wants to leave, we start talking to them about the reasons they came. And start reminding them of the reasons they’re here.”

‘I’m so done with doing this’

Loie Black came here to escape a cycle of drinking and missing school. At first glance, you would never guess this 17-year-old’s history. Today, she looks healthy, and strong.

“I tried to go back to school, but then I just like started doing the same things that I did before,” Loie said. “And I knew that if I stayed with my friends and my family, that I wouldn’t graduate.”

When her mom first suggested the academy, Loie was not on board. She continued to drink to the point of throwing up, and developed an infection in her throat.

“I was so sick,” Loie recalled. “I had to be put on an IV because I couldn’t drink anything because my throat hurt so bad.”

That’s when she knew it was time to go.

“And at that moment I was kind of like ‘wow’ you know, it’s not cool to be throwing up constantly because you’re so drunk all the time,” Loie said. “I’m so done with doing this.”

Loie and her mom, Connie Black, had no idea this second-chance school was even an option until Connie’s nephew briefly mentioned it in passing.

“When we first started telling people, I was surprised at how many people had heard of the youth academy because I hadn’t heard of it,” Connie said.

Loie hadn’t either.

Staying on track

Connie said the day she dropped Loie off was one of the hardest. She was nervous about the intensity of the military culture.

“It was kind of a shock, because the moment you walk up they’re... in your face,” Connie said. “And it’s hard to have someone shouting in your kid’s face.”

But the willingness of cadets to buy into such a demanding process inspires families to make changes too. Connie said she’s motivated to physically and emotionally ‘clean house’.

“So I want to hold up my end of this, because she’s working so hard,” she said.

After their stay at the academy, cadets work with a mentor in their community to stay on track.

“Because we can control the environment while they’re here,” Pierce said. “But when they return home, they’ve changed, but the world hasn’t changed.”

Loie said she’s looking forward to graduating from the academy and from high school. And she’s even thought about a career.

“I wanna help people,” she said. “Like maybe be something in psychology or like maybe being a therapist at a psychiatric hospital. Because I know that a lot of these people aren’t heard.”