Alternative school’s military-style discipline transforms struggling teenagers

Idaho Youth Challenge Academy cadets Nicholas Cramer, Guillermo Pineda and Joseline Carbajal.

PIERCE — Nicholas broke into a building in Priest River and stole expensive equipment; Joseline was skipping class at Jerome High School and running with the wrong crowd; Guillermo wants to overcome generational poverty and substance abuse in Boise.

Today, the trio stands solidly at attention in front of Idaho Youth Challenge Academy, their military green cadet uniforms neatly creased and squared away. Surrounded by acres of timber, the nearest town is Pierce, which has no stop lights, a dusty main street with a restaurant or two, a hardware store and saloons. Town hall closes at one o’clock. There are a couple of ancient gas pumps ready for retirement and plenty of parking anywhere in town.

Weippe and Orofino lie south down sharp mountain roads and past logging trucks laden with tons of wood. North up Highway 11 dead ends at Headquarters, population no one.

Alternative school students stand at attention at the end of the day in remote Pierce, Idaho.

To provide an immediate change of environment, the school purposely selected a remote town, surrounded by vastness and free of distractions, away from friends and negative influences. Drugs, alcohol, ditching class and un-productivity are not tolerated. 

“We pretty much did everything we weren’t supposed to be doing,” recalled Nicholas Cramer, 17, about life back home before joining the youth academy.

Rather than celebrating his senior year of high school, Nicholas was busy skipping school and avoiding law enforcement, who knew him by name. Facing larceny charges, he volunteered to attend the academy.

“Some of these kids need something in their life that is meaningful and causes them to be proud of who they are, believe in who they are, and have confidence that they can be successful,” said Greg Billups, the school’s admissions coordinator.

Even for the motivated, it’s not an easy transition. About 15% of cadets walk away. But approximately 250 students — all high school dropouts — finish each year and leave better prepared to finish their education or tackle adulthood.

“It’s always a dark day when we have to send someone home,” Billups said.

The intervention program targets dropouts between the ages of 15-1/2 to 18 from every corner of the state, Ada County providing the most students. The 20-week residential phase relies on structure, utilizing military-like discipline and training. The focus in the classroom is education and life skills, plus a 12-month post-residential phase to help students after they graduate.

“We’re an opportunity and not a punishment,” Billups said.

The youth academy is not a detention center because there is no fence and it’s not a boot camp because they are not interested in breaking anyone down.

But the campus is secure, with 24-hour supervision, no cell phones, television or inappropriate internet.

The Idaho Youth Challenge Academy is a certified alternative high school that serves about 250 students each year in two cadet classes.

Two months into the program, Nicholas’ attitude changed: he attends classes eight hours a day, eats healthy and exercises — at least an hour each day, including weekends.

“I’ve learned I am a lot more disciplined, smarter than I thought I was, and now I can see more of my full potential,” he said.

Because of the negative influences guiding her life, Joseline Carbajal, 17, was not going to graduate. But structure and discipline changed her.

“I am a lot more grateful, a lot more disciplined and open-minded about everything,” Joseline  said. “Family day on Saturday made me more motivated because they could see how far I’ve come.”

Life skills are part of the core lessons taught.

Also struggling with school, Guillermo upended his life in Boise to find more direction. “I felt like I was wasting my potential, falling into some bad habits, and was lost and unprepared.”

Guillermo is determined to be a good role model for his younger nieces and nephews, and break a cycle of poverty, addiction and legal troubles.

“They’re proud of me,” Guillermo said about his parents’ reaction.

Joseline and Nicholas plan to finish high school. Guillermo plans to finish school, too, but he made a profound choice — to serve his country.

“My parents are surprised by my decision to join the Army and they say ‘keep finding direction,’” Guillermo said.

The military-style youth academy is officially an alternative public high school within the Orofino Joint 171 School District, at no cost to cadets. In nine years, nearly 2,000 Idaho students have graduated. They recovered almost 28,000 credits, issued 248 diplomas and helped 187 earn GEDs.

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GETTING STARTED: New cadets are referred by high school counselors, word of mouth, legacy kids (they knew someone who attended), school counselors, principals, resource officers and probation officers.

The next class starts in January but not everyone will get in. There is an application and interview process. Each class is open to 100 males and 45 females. 

Four things disqualify applicants: a felony, too many risk factors (like a GPA of 1.5 or below or high truancy), unmotivated to attend and an IEP disability the school is unable to accommodate.

Students spend eight hours a day in class. Ditching class is not accepted.

“If they’re not willing to buy into the system, then they usually fail,” Billups said.

Turning kids away who aren’t qualified is the hardest part. “It’s a dark day for me anytime somebody is looking for some hope and answers, and we can’t provide it because they’re ineligible.”

The campus, opened in 2014, utilizes an unused K-8 school and additional modular buildings for barracks housing. There’s a gym, dining facility, laundry and library — the only entertainment. Weekends involve service to the community, team building exercises, physical training, leadership classes, homework time and personal time.

It costs taxpayers approximately $18,000 to $19,000 to house and educate each cadet. The school operates with 75% federal and 25% state funding. There are 70 staff members who are State of Idaho Military Division employees, except for eight licensed teachers and one principal.

FIVE MONTHS LATER: “I want them to be confident they can be successful in any environment,” Billups said. “We hope they’re proud that they did something unique and they did something difficult and they did it well.”

One of the academy’s core outcomes is academic excellence. Cadets who’ve previously failed a class recover that credit. The program offers 15 credits in 5-1/2 months, which is equivalent to a whole year of school.

Other components include basic banking skills, maintaining good credit, managing a personal budget, identifying emotional coping strategies, volunteering at the Dworshak Fish Hatchery, completing Forest Service trail maintenance and stacking wood for the elderly. They’re encouraged to register to vote and participate in an election process, and have a basic understanding of the Constitution.

What do cadets do after they graduate? The following examples represent the last class to graduate in January.

  • 65% returned to high school.
  • 17% graduated with a diploma.
  • 13% earned their GED.
  • 5% entered a branch of the military.

LIFE AFTER THE ACADEMY: “The best days for me are when I hear kids say how proud they are of themselves and what they’ve accomplished,” Billups said.

School administrators remain in contact with a number of previous graduates. These stories briefly discuss the progress of three former cadets who got back on the right track.

Tanner Morales

Tanner Morales joined the Idaho National Guard and became an aerospace propulsion technician. He entered in June of 2015 and is still serving. He volunteers for the school’s two-week acclimation phase twice a year to assist new cadets. He’s been a mentor for a few specific cadets and he recently worked as a cadre leader at the academy. He is now employed in the Boise area and wants to be part of the new mentoring program.

Mark Turner

Mark Turner lives in Coeur d’Alene and works as a body repair technician and a technician trainer at a collision center. He operates an online automotive store and is in talks to open a second business full-time. He is currently mentoring a cadet from the academy, helping him get on his feet. Turner is responsible for the creation of our Cadet Peer Review Board. He had the idea when he was attending the academy. It has helped many cadets continue their journey and reach graduation. 

John Kreycik joined the US Army in 2016 and became a paratrooper. They aren’t sure where he currently lives.

The youth academy is part of the larger “National Guard Youth ChalleNGe.” Since the program’s inception in 1993, it has graduated nearly 200,000 students in 31 states. It’s administered by the Department of Defense and implemented by the National Guard Bureau. If you have a student who is struggling, Billups can be reached at 208-827-6746 or [email protected].

John Kreycik (front row, right)
Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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