[ The Real McCoy Online Home ]                                                                                                               September 12, 2008

ChalleNGe Academy celebrates 
10 years at McCoy

By Lou Ann M. Mittelstaedt, The Real McCoy Staff

The 10-year history and success of the Wisconsin National Guard’s ChalleNGe Academy at Fort McCoy was celebrated with a ceremony, tours, and a luncheon Aug. 27.

Photo: Mark Aumann of Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind’s office, Wisconsin Army National Guard Adjutant General Brig. Gen. Donald P. Dunbar, and State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout listen to guest speakers during the ChalleNGe Academy’s 10th anniversary ceremony. (Photo contributed by Wisconsin National Guard ChalleNGe Academy)
Mark Aumann of Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind’s office, Wisconsin Army National Guard Adjutant General Brig. Gen. Donald P. Dunbar, and State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout listen to guest speakers during the ChalleNGe Academy’s 10th anniversary ceremony. (Photo contributed by Wisconsin National Guard ChalleNGe Academy)

ChalleNGe Academy Director M.G. MacLaren said Wisconsin joined the Challenge movement in 1998 under the leadership of Governor Tommy Thompson, Maj. Gen. James Blaney, State Senator Rod Moen, and Representative Terry Musser.

The Academy opened its doors at Fort McCoy in September 1998, with the first class starting Sept. 18.

"Since our beginning, the academy has graduated 1,620 cadets, with 1,401 of them earning their High School Equivalency Diploma, and all of them leaving our academy with life prospects better than when they arrived," MacLaren said.

Several people with ties to the academy participated as speakers at the ceremony.

Kenneth Holub graduated from the academy in June 2002. He is now married, the father of two, and a successful, respected employee at his job. 

"Before I came to the academy, I was clearly headed for trouble — using drugs, skipping school, failing classes," Holub said. "The irony is, I am capable and had every opportunity when it came to school and succeeding. But I made choices not to engage in my education."

"Since our beginning, the academy has graduated 1,620 cadets, with 1,401 of them earning their High School Equivalency Diploma, and all of the m leaving our academy with life prospects better than when they arrived."

M. G. MacLaren,
ChalleNGe Academy Director


When he was presented with the opportunity to attend the academy, he said he looked at it as a shortcut to finishing high school. "Lo and behold, the first day of intake here was the worst day of my life, or so I thought," he said. "You couldn’t talk. I didn’t know anyone. I underestimated how physically demanding the program was." But he persevered, eventually attaining senior cadet status.

"Teamwork was one of my hardest struggles, but it became my most important lesson," Holub said. "Being an individual and not a team member is not an option at this school. At the time I thought it was stupid, but I’ve been in the real world for a while now, and I know that if I had not learned this very important tool, I know I would be headed down that same alley I was headed before I came to the academy. I realized my actions don’t affect just me, they affect everyone in my life."

"The ChalleNGe Academy helped me see the potential in me," he said. "For the last six years I have worked for the world’s largest and fastest-growing lawn-care company as a sales representative." For the last four years, he has been one of their top-50 salespeople nationwide.

"I wouldn’t be the good father, or good husband, or family man I am if I had not come to this program," he said. "I hope that we, as citizens, can keep helping young people get back on track with their lives, like I did. I greatly appreciate the opportunity."

About the Academy....

MISSION: The Wisconsin National Guard ChalleNGe Academy is a 17-month program for at-risk youth ages 16 years 9 months through 18. Academy cadets complete a 22-week residential phase during which the cadets can earn their High School Equivalency Diploma and change their outlooks and viewpoints on life and character.

During the 22-week residential phase cadets learn to put together a Post-Residential Action Plan with the help of staff members assigned to each cadet.

This plan will give them a road map for their future. Following the residential phase, each cadet participates in a 12-month post-residential phase where the cadets go on to jobs, post-secondary education, or military service. During the post-residential phase the cadets meet regularly with their adult mentors and work to put into action the values and concepts learned during their 22-week schooling.

Cadets come from all socioeconomic groups and all backgrounds, but all must be at-risk of not graduating from high school as defined by the State of Wisconsin. Usually, cadets are high school dropouts, habitual truants, expelled students, or students critically deficient in credits. Cadets must be free of drugs, mentally and physically healthy, not on probation and not be awaiting sentencing, be convicted of, or have charges pending for a felony.

HISTORY: The National Guard‘s Youth ChalleNGe Program began in 1991, when the House Joint Armed Service Committee tasked the National Guard to develop a plan to help at-risk teens and "add value to America." By providing values, skills, education, and discipline to young people using the structure and esprit de corps of the military model, the Youth ChalleNGe Program began a three-year pilot program in 1993.

Fifteen states participated in the pilot program, which became a permanent National Guard program in 1996. 

In 1998, Wisconsin became one of 26 states to offer a 22-week, National Guard-sponsored ChalleNGe Program designed specifically for high school dropouts and habitual truants between the ages of 16 years 9 months and 18 years of age. 

The ChalleNGe Academy admits qualifying young men and women to a 17-month long program of life-changing experiences.

(From the Wisconsin National Guard ChalleNGe Academy Web site. For more information, visit http://www.challengeacademy.org.)

Sharing the perspective of a parent of a child whose life was changed by the academy was Sue Rustebakke. Rustebakke’s teenage son, Adam, had made poor choices.

"Adam was a smart, personable kid — a little stubborn, but he had such great potential," she said. "We did counseling, conferences, anger management classes — just about everything we could think of — and nothing seemed to have an impact," she said. "He’d given up on school. Life at home was horrible. He was headed for jail, drug use, and a dead-end low-paying job, if he could find one at all. These were some really dark times for me and my family."

Rustebakke said her son applied for admission to the academy at the end of 2001. By the time he was to start with "Class 9" in July 2002, there was another challenge. The fate of the academy hung in the balance of budget and funding issues.

"Thank you to all of you who were instrumental in keeping the program going at that time," she said. "I am one of over a thousand families who has benefitted from the program since that point in time."

Adam Rustebakke graduated as the class Military Honor Graduate, and now is a Solider in the U.S. Army. He has served honorably in the Army for the last five years, and currently is assigned as an aviation mechanic at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia.

MacLaren said Sue Rustebakke continues to be a dedicated supporter of the ChalleNGe idea. "She has been instrumental in leading the effort to form a nonprofit organization for the ChalleNGe Academy, and unselfishly donates huge amounts of time to support parents and cadets of each class at key events such as Reception Day, Family Day and Commencement," he said.

Jennifer Harrison graduated with Class 8. She is a disabled Army veteran who currently cares for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. In addition to her work, she is attending college full-time with the goal of becoming a social worker. She has come full-circle with the ChalleNGe program by serving as a mentor to a cadet in Class 18, and regularly contributes to the academy-sponsored message board to assist prospective cadets and their parents.

Brig. Gen. Donald P. Dunbar, adjutant general for the Wisconsin National Guard, said he was humbled by the stories he was hearing about the hard work and successes of the academy’s 10 years.

Dunbar said Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York is credited with coining the phrase "defining deviancy down" — meaning when things get so bad in society, society lowers the standards so it doesn’t look so bad, so that what once was abnormal becomes normal and is accepted.

"A few years later, reflecting on Senator Moynihan’s proposition, Charles Krauthammer, a noted columnist in our country, said that America’s heritage was not only to define deviancy down, but, when we put our minds to it, to define deviancy up, and that we could choose, very often in our society, to raise the standard and insist on standards that made things better in our society," Dunbar said.

"The ChalleNGe Academy is just one way to do something about it," he said, adding that he is so grateful to the predecessors who have accomplished much to ensure the program’s success. "I just stand back and cheer that these young kids, who are going through difficult times, get an opportunity," Dunbar said. "But there is only one way to get out of this academy, and that is to meet the standard."

"We don’t define deviancy down in Wisconsin," Dunbar said. "We define deviancy up. We take kids who are struggling, and we give them things to believe in. We give them guidance to move them forward in life. We create productive citizens, or they don’t leave here or graduate. It’s just that simple."

Senator Kathleen Vinehout of Wisconsin’s 31st Senate District said she was honored to help the award-winning, highly successful academy celebrate its first 10 years and to look to the future. 

The academy receives 60 percent of its funding from federal sources and 40 percent from the state.

"Our state is facing a huge budget challenge, just as the students here are facing an incredible challenge," Vinehout said. In 2002, state funds for the ChalleNGe program were placed under the Department of Public Instruction so they would be protected, she said.

Vinehout pledged to work with Congressman Ron Kind and Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold to do whatever is possible to ensure continued funding of "this highly successful investment that our state and federal government has made."

Vinehout said the program, which claims a 77 percent graduation rate, is one of the most successful programs in the country at targeting the problems of at-risk youth. It is cost effective as well, she said, adding that four students can attend ChalleNGe for the cost of processing one teen through the juvenile justice system.

"As you (students) struggle to get through this, know that the advantages you gained here in this program are not only yours, they’re not only your family’s, but they are the future of all students who are going to come to the academy," Vinehout said.

MacLaren closed the ceremony by recognizing and thanking the many individuals, organizations and corporations that have had roles in bringing the academy to where it is today.


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