C.Thanks to the Academy: At-Risk Youth at Greater Risk

Finally, as the safe schools and zero-tolerance movements have expanded, and our engagement in the Middle East has grown, the military has stepped up its efforts to access the most vulnerable young students in a more direct fashion: by establishing and running its own schools. Across the country, states have joined with the federal government to create local chapters of the National Guard's Youth ChalleNGe Academy (YCA). To allow the National Guard to operate residential boot-camp-like, quasi-military schools for local at-risk youth, Congress established the Youth ChalleNGe Academy concept in 1993 as a pilot program in ten jurisdictions. The target participants were high school dropouts between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. After completing a twenty-two week residential phase, the cadets, as students are called, are required to participate in a one-year, post-residential phase in which they are further mentored.

Since the program's inception, the number of states hosting YCAs for the National Guard has risen. Only fifteen states had adopted the program in 1995, but over thirty jurisdictions currently run such boot camps, with Missouri becoming one of the most recent participants under a state act signed into law on May 28, 2010. Because budget constraints required it to close its first facility, this is the second time Missouri has attempted to establish a YCA. Now, however, the federal government will pay 75% of the costs associated with the program, and this enhanced financial support attracts states to YCAs. States must raise the remainder of the costs through private groups, such as the National Guard Youth Foundation, a non-profit fundraising agency expressly formed to support the National Guard's YCA efforts.

YCAs purport to be voluntary programs that youth may choose to attend. Because the funds for YCAs do not come out of a school districting budget, however, school districts have an incentive to steer problem students to participate in them. Some states appear to run the YCA programs in conjunction with state juvenile justice systems as an alternative to residential treatment. Such programs fail to satisfy educational norms because the National Guard lacks certified teachers and other trained school personnel. Indeed, President of the National Guard Youth Foundation Gail Dady admitted, When you think of the National Guard, you don't think educator, you think warfighter. Still, she claimed that no one is better suited to run such a school.

YCAs further claim that young people who enroll are not required to join the military, but the program seeks to model a military lifestyle with young people living in barracks, being assigned to platoons, wearing uniforms, and learning battle skills, such as weaponry target practice. Moreover, the program requires young people who enroll to engage with National Guard officers on a daily basis and to meet with recruiters from all branches of the armed forces.

Official YCA websites suggest there is no pressure on cadets to ultimately enlist. Other sources suggest that YCAs serve as a feeder for the armed services. According to one such report, 15% to 20% of YCA students-- approximately 50% of whom are minorities --have gone on to serve in the military. With claims of 100,000 graduates to date nationwide, this represents a total of 15,000 to 20,000 at-risk youth between the ages of sixteen and eighteen sent into active duty. According to the program's own self-study, approximately 11% of all program participants under age seventeen had somehow already enlisted.