Despite COVID-19, Commonwealth ChalleNGe marches on with ‘Virtual ChalleNGe’ for Class 53

Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy Cadets conduct a pass and review and drill and ceremony demonstration for family, friends and alumni during Class 52’s Family Day Feb. 1, 2020, at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Class 53 cadets are currently enrolled in a “Virtual ChalleNGe.” (U.S. Army National Guard Photo by Sgt. Lisa M. Sadler)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The COVID-19 pandemic has led the Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy to introduce a “Virtual ChalleNGe,” using video teleconferencing technology for the cadets of Class 53, which began May 18, 2020, with 59 cadets in three platoons.

“We would love to get them on campus, but we can accomplish a lot remotely,” said Mark Chicoine, the director of Commonwealth ChalleNGe. “I challenged the staff to deliver virtually and they’ve responded.”

“I applaud the dedication and creativity of our ChalleNGe team for making the effort to create and implement this ‘Virtual ChalleNGe’ program,” said Walt Mercer, chief operations officer for the Virginia Department of Military Affairs. “Their efforts with this initiative have created a positive situation out of negative situation for these cadets.”

Commonwealth ChalleNGe is the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program. It is a 17-and-a-half-month program designed to promote academics, attention to detail, time management, and leadership, while promoting self-esteem, confidence and pride.

ChalleNGe aims to intervene in the lives of 16-18 year-olds by providing values, skills, education and self-discipline needed to produce responsible, productive citizens, and to do so in a highly-structured learning environment.

Retired Brig. Gen. Walt Mercer (center), chief operations officer for the Virginia Department of Military Affairs, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Andrew L. Eaves (left), an active duty Army aviator assigned to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and a Mississippi National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Academy graduate, congratulate the graduates of Class 52 of the Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy Feb. 29, 2020, at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in Virginia Beach. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, staff members developed a ‘Virtual ChalleNGe’ for Class 53. (U.S. National Guard photo by A.J. Coyne)

Normally it includes a five-and-a-half-month residential program which focuses on preparing at-risk teens and high school dropouts for the General Educational Development test and future employment, military or higher education opportunities.

Class 53 was supposed to start the residential portion March 30 with 160 kids at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach. But COVID-19 began having a worldwide impact a few weeks before that date so the class was delayed as ChalleNGe leadership evaluated their options.

With uncertainty about when it would be safe to gather in large groups again, ChalleNGe leadership canvassed the families of the 160 cadets of Class 53 to see who would be interested in participating in a virtual, remote version of the program to return to high school.

While some Class 53 attendees opted to wait until Class 54, which is scheduled to begin in the fall, a total of 46 male and 13 female cadets agreed to participate in the “Virtual ChalleNGe” program. Thirty-four cadets are pursuing their GED and 25 are in the credit recovery program.

Chicoine explained that the program already uses technology programs for some academic portions such as credit recovery so it hasn’t been too much of an adjustment on that side. The educational platform they use can be accessed anywhere and monitored by ChalleNGe teachers remotely.

Virginia Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs Carlos Hopkins visits the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy Oct. 23, 2019, at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Hopkins toured the ChalleNGe facilities, including classrooms and barracks, and spoke with leadership, the staff and cadets of Class 52. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the classrooms are empty as Class 53 experiences a “Virtual ChalleNGe.” (U.S. National Guard photo by A.J. Coyne)

“Our credit recovery track probably shouldn’t be as affected, as the instruction is given online anyway,” explained Terence Kreitner, lead teacher at ChalleNGe. “The ChalleNGe teachers act as facilitators and to help clear up any further questions the students did not understand from their online instructors.”

GED classes will see the biggest adjustment.

“Our GED classes are traditional, teacher-led classrooms, so we will be limited in the kinesthetic portion of our teaching methods,” Kreitner said.

As a science teacher, he said he will find this particularly challenging. But he thinks that math, which is very heavy on one-on-one interaction, where the teacher often sits with the student to work through the math problems, will be the toughest class to translate to remote learning.

Another challenge for the staff has been to develop virtual classes to for their non-academic classes, including counseling, military science, physical fitness, job skills and health education.

According to Dr. Delphoney Kargbo, the Commonwealth ChalleNGe post residential, placement and mentor coordinator, the career counselors are preparing the candidates for placement opportunities and will conduct their first virtual Resource Day on June 1.

In addition, therapeutic counselors are teaching a Life Coping Skills class to ensure the mental stability of the cadets.

“Emotional healing and mental resiliency are a central part of helping our candidates/cadets succeed through individual counseling and our Life Coping Skills classes,” said April Hand-Cameron, lead counselor at ChalleNGe. “These are unique offerings that ChalleNGe provides to our candidates/cadets that regular high schoolers do not have access to.

“While we are eager to soon provide individual counseling sessions to cadets, once we can have access to a specially encrypted database to enable us to provide that service to cadets virtually in the best possible way, I’m very excited at how the mental health counseling staff has been able to adapt and create an entirely virtual lesson plan for our Credit Recovery and GED cadets for their Life Coping Skills coursework.”

Staff members are finding that how they spend their time and how they interact with the cadets is much different than previous classes.

“Normally eight hours of our day is taken up with marching, teaching and disciplining cadets,” said Robert Laury, the program coordinator for ChalleNGe. “Now a greater portion will be in front of a computer screen at home or a designated place at work.”

Interacting with the cadets and serving as role models is tricky because, as Laury explained, “We don’t know if we will ever get to meet them in person. We must look at other ways and be more creative when it comes interacting with them.”

“The other day I was reviewing some of the video sharing links on coping with being bullied and civic responsibility, and I was so touched that tears really came to my eyes,” said Hand-Cameron. “Hopefully, we can convey as much of the qualitative education and indelible learning that we have on campus at ChalleNGe to the virtual experience. We’re doing our best.”

As Kreitner explained, ChalleNGe is not just about helping cadets with academics but, just as importantly, how to properly communicate and interact with others. One way to do that is through extracurricular activities. Some of the most popular ones are at ChalleNGe are soccer, volleyball, the Environmental Club, K-9 Cadets, the History Club, pickle ball and archery.

Although they will miss out on those extracurricular activities, Chicoine believes his staff can give the cadets of Class 53 as much of the ChalleNGe experience as they can in the current climate.

There are eight core components of the Virginia ChalleNGe program. Usually cadets must successfully complete all eight components to graduate from the academy- academic excellence, life coping skills, job skills, health and hygiene, responsible citizenship, service to the community, leadership/followership and physical fitness. 

“I feel that we can offer virtual curriculum and begin to satisfy five of eight core components,” Chicoine said.

ChalleNGe staff has had to ensure the cadets not only have knowledge of how the system works but also have access to the technology to make it work.

“Hopefully, the candidates that have accepted this way of learning for now are motivated enough to keep their attendance up with little classroom distractions,” Kreitner said.

Not only are the Class 53 cadets receiving a crash course in video conferencing and remote learning, but the ChalleNGe staff is receiving one as well.

“Thank goodness we have an awesome IT/logistics team,” Kreitner said.

Most of the operations staff either wasn’t familiar with, or had very little experience with, many of the video conferencing platforms they will be using, according to Laury.

“We are currently learning this on the fly,” he said. “Staff are comfortable standing in front of cadets they have had from day one. Now having to teach a class of 25 kids virtually is a challenge within itself.”

“As teachers, we are familiar with computers and may have attended videoconferences, but now we have to host and set up conferences,” Kreitner explained. “Most of us do not have that experience.” 

Although the first several weeks have seen some hiccups, staff and cadets are adjusting and working out the kinks.

“Overall though, it seems pretty positive,” Kreitner said. “I think the candidates that made it this far are committed to doing their required tasks. It’s just a matter of everybody being on the same page.”

“It has been rough trying to adjust our mindset, build up our technology, equip staff and continue to find ways to bring Commonwealth ChalleNGe to those who need it without compromising the integrity of the program,” Kargbo said. “Through the ups and many downs, we have accomplished a task that could be used as a model for others to follow.”

Although no one was ready for this situation, Kargbo feels it would benefit every program to have a ‘what-if’ plan, “so the next time we are forced to make a shift in the way we operate, we are ready.”

In the meantime, as Kargbo said, they’ve all “stepped up to the ChalleNGe, as one team, working towards a common good. And that common good is the success of our candidates.”