When teenager Julie Santiago got caught skipping school last June, it seemed like the breaking point in what she described as a long line of misdeeds.
A native of Puerto Rico, Julie, 16, had already been expelled from the Catholic high school she'd enrolled in while living with her stepfather in San Juan. In January of 2008, she re-enrolled at Robinson High School in Fairfax County after moving back in with her parents in Fairfax. But from May to June of that year, she says, she would call the school pretending to be her mother to excuse herself from classes.
"I was going clubbing in D.C., doing drugs, my weight had gone up," she said. "I was lost, I didn't know what to do with my life. I would have been 19 when I graduated — I couldn't do it."
For those teens who have struggled to complete high school — whether because of a learning disability, delinquent tendencies, or some other cause — any kind of reprieve from their troubles can be welcome. For Julie and several other teens in northern Virginia, their break came with a daily 5:30 a.m. wakeup and lots of push-ups.
Begun in 1994 as one of 10 federally-funded pilot programs, the Commonwealth ChalleNGe Academy seeks to provide a structured environment for at-risk Virginia teens aged 16-19. Over the course of six months, the teens receive disciplinary and educational instruction at Camp Pendleton, in Virginia Beach. While its Web site describes it as a "quasi-military residential program," officials with the program stressed that it was not "boot camp." The program does not accept felons, and admission is free and voluntary.
<b>FOR TARA WILSON</b>, the academy seemed like the ideal place to send her son, Robert Locke, Jr., an 18-year-old student with special needs. Robert, however, was unsure. "When he first heard it, the only thing he said was, 'I'm not going into any residential program.' I told him he had no choice."
Wilson recounted how on the first day, parents and guardians waited while Col. Thomas Early (ret.), the program's director, interviewed their children. Several minutes after Robert went in, her name was called.
"When I went up there he was undecided, he didn't know, he was nervous, so we had to talk to the Colonel, and he stated that a part of [Robert] wanted to go, and a part of him wanted to be at home. So the Colonel talked to him, and he finally made the decision to stay and try."
Despite frequent struggles, Tara Wilson said, Robert wound up being praised by his group leaders for his conscientiousness and willingness to volunteer. Still, Early acknowledged the limits of a program like ChalleNGe for teens in similar situations.
"What we can do is increase his adult basic education scores; in general it might give him propensity to do well in adult education," Early said. "He can also get a letter of recommendation for something like Job Corps. Just the discipline, organization, physical fitness, it gives you more self-esteem."
Robert has since re-enrolled at T.C. Williams, where he is in 11th grade. Wilson said that, whatever its limits, the program did a commendable job.
"When he went in, I didn't know who he was — he wasn't my child, that I'd had," she said. "When he graduated, I had seen a change. It's still going to take time, but I have seen a change."
<b>DESPITE THE ABRUPT</b> change in lifestyle, Julie says she fell in love with military-style living. While it may not have been basic training, the cadets, as the teens are called, must still get through a two-week "hardcore" calisthenics regimen that includes running, push-ups, and an obstacle course. For the rest of the program, days begin at 5:30 a.m. with a morning fitness regimen, after which they attend classes and receive instruction in academic, vocational, and "life-coping" skills such as conflict-resolution and personal finance. Civics and community service are also included in the curriculum.
By the end of the program, she had gone through a transformation she likened to a butterfly's.
"I'd never had that [structure] before, I'd never completed anything," she said. "I learned a lot living there; it helped me get in shape, it gave me a life again. My parents were really proud of me, I got all the trust back."
Col. Thomas Early (ret.), the program's director, praised Julie's achievements, which also included earning her GED after moving up five grades in math and reading. "She's quite bright — she did well," he said. He added that they have taken her on several recruiting trips around the state to promote the program.
Julie is currently attending Northern Virginia Community College, and hopes to enlist in the Navy as a nurse. Indeed, the Academy was just named the best of its kind by the National Guard. Nevertheless, there are limits to how much such programs can do: while 87 cadets out of 141 graduates completed their GED, 66 of the 207 who initially enrolled never finished the program, whether because they were physically unable or because of disciplinary infractions. The academy appears to have had the greatest success rate for cadets who already displayed natural, if repressed, ability before they entered the Academy.