Commonwealth ChalleNGe welcomes two new classes, host of changes to the program

Candidates in Commonwealth ChalleNGe Class 40 navigate the leadership reaction course Jan. 27, 2014, at Fort Eustis. The LRC is one of several rigorous events the candidates experience during the "Acclimation Period" that also include rappelling off a 40-foot tower, an obstacle course and classes on a variety of topics including drill and ceremonies, anger management, time management, goal setting and character development. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

Candidates in Commonwealth ChalleNGe Class 40 navigate the leadership reaction course Jan. 27, 2014, at Fort Eustis. The LRC is one of several rigorous events the candidates experience during the “Acclimation Period” that also include rappelling off a 40-foot tower, an obstacle course and classes on a variety of topics including drill and ceremonies, anger management, time management, goal setting and character development. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

CAMP PENDLETON, Va. – The Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy underwent some changes before it welcomed 111 cadets into Class 40 earlier this year.

The cadets of Class 40 completed their “acclimation period” into ChalleNGe Jan. 23-31, 2014, at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach.

Just after the administrative in-processing into the program, the ChalleNGe candidates began the “acclimation period,” where they were introduced to the daily structure of the program, explained retired Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Laury, the Commonwealth ChalleNGe commandant, who holds the rank of lieutenant colonel in the program’s new cadre rank structure.

“The acclimation period gives us a chance to get these candidate into the program so they can see what it is like and see if they are going to be able to make it for the next five months,” Laury said.

“During the acclimation period, we’re getting to know them and they’re getting to know us,” explained retired Navy Capt. Mark Chicoine, the director of the Commonwealth ChalleNGe. “A lot of times it’s the first time these kids are away from their home. Our support staff is here the whole time, pretty much working around the clock during that period.”

The acclimation period is physically demanding, as candidates work through the obstacle course, leadership reaction course and rappel tower. Rappel masters from the Virginia National Guard’s 183rd Regiment, Regional Training Institute at Fort Pickett led the training at Fort Eustis.

There is an academic focus to acclimation period as well. The cadets meet with counselors and take academic placement tests, as well as classes on life coping skills and character development.

“I really appreciate the 183rd RTI coming in to help us with the rappel and LRC course,” Chicoine said. “We got some pretty cold weather that week but we adapted and all the kids did well. The weather was another chance to show how everyone should work together as a team and I think it contributed to a pretty good acclimation period.”

The cadets are also introduced to team building exercises and the focus on the period is teamwork, Laury said.

“They learn to eat, sleep and work together,” he said. “These kids are coming from different environments, and they need to learn to work together as a team.”

Once the candidates completed the acclimation period, then they became full-fledged ChalleNGe cadets. At a special ceremony Jan. 31, 2014, Brig. Gen. Wayne Wright, the Virginia National Guard director of joint staff, swore them into the program and the cadets received a certificate of completion and their first uniform ribbon.

Following the ceremony, the cadets began their academic coursework, which now includes military science classes that teach things like drill and ceremonies, military customs and courtesies and rank structure.

Candidates with Class 41 of the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy are introduced to the program during their first week of class March 13, 2014 at Camp Pendleton. Class 41, made up of just 55 male youths, will graduate in August. The ChalleNGe program will then conduct two full classes each year- October to March and April to August. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Candidates with Class 41 of the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy are introduced to the program during their first week of class March 13, 2014 at Camp Pendleton. Class 41, made up of just 55 male youths, will graduate in August. The ChalleNGe program will then conduct two full classes each year- October to March and April to August. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

The program is currently in a transition period, according to Chicoine, and is in the process of making a number of changes. In addition to the cadets in Class 40, 55 male cadets will form Class 41, which began with orientation March 11.

“Instead of going from September to December and January to June, classes will now run from October to March and April to August,” Chicoine explained. “Class 40 will graduate in June and Class 41 will graduate the first week of August. Then we transition to Class 42 in October.”

A number of youths drop out during the first month of school. So pushing back the start date of the program will allow ChalleNGe to get those kids who’ve just dropped out, rather than having to wait a few months for the next class to begin.

But the change to the class calendar is just one of many big changes for the program this year.

Instead of security officers, cadre members are now Training Advise and Counseling officers. The TAC officers fall under Laury and they have developed a military science curriculum which includes everything from hygiene to drill and facing movements.

All of the TAC officers are current or former members of the military. But instead of wearing their service specific uniforms, as they did in the past, they now all wear one common, blue uniform.

“One of the visible changes is we went to a staff uniform under the commandant’s side,” Chicoine explained. “The TAC officers are on the officer side and the students are on the enlisted side. This way they’re easily recognizable and we could do military courtesies and customs such as salutes and reporting.

Each TAC officer is now assigned seven students. Faculty members, counselors and career counselors are assigned students as well.

“Once a month we bring that student together with his or her support team and they get together with the principal, commandant and myself and we figure out what they need to do to succeed,” Chicoine explained. “I want someone to be responsible for each cadet, to pull them through the program and make sure no one falls through the cracks.”

ChalleNGe is also developing a partnership with Norfolk State University’s mentor program.
“We’re tapping into their program so our kids have legitimate mentors,” Chicoine said. “They’re college students that are looking to go into this profession so this will be a great experience for them and us.”

There have been changes to the academic structure as well. For the first time, cadets will earn letter grades for their classes, in addition to passing the GED.

“When a student comes here for five and a half months, they need something to show what they learned even if they didn’t earn their GED,” Chicoine said. “Now we can give them letter grades and see where they are and what they did. I think that will pay dividends and it will legitimize the academic portion of ChalleNGe to the educators.”

The academics side, the mentor side and the TAC officer side are all a work in progress, according to Chicoine.

“I’m excited. I think our support structure is the best it’s ever been,” he said. “We put a lot of pressure on the faculty and I’m really excited about the possibilities here.

Commonwealth ChalleNGe is the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, which focuses on preparing teenagers that have dropped out or are on the verge of dropping out of high school with skills, discipline and academics to become a productive citizen. As an alternative education program they also have the opportunity to prepare for and take the General Educational Development test. Teenagers also prepare for future employment, military or higher education opportunities during the residential phase. Offered free to teenagers 16 to 18 in Virginia, Commonwealth ChalleNGe is a statewide alternative educational program with two components- a 22-week quasi-military residential phase and a 12-month post-residential phase.

During the 22-week residential phase, cadet studies center on the eight components of the program- academics, life-coping skills, work skills, citizenship, leadership, health education, physical fitness and community service. Cadets have the opportunity to take the GED test and establish a life plan (continued education, employment or military service) during this phase.

Graduates must either go back to high school, join the military, go to college, or have a job in place.

In the 12-month post-residential phase, a mentor guides each of the cadets as they follow through with the life plan established during the residential phase.

Photos: ChalleNGE candidates navigate leadership reaction course

For more information on Commonwealth ChalleNGe: Commonwealth ChalleNGe Facebook page