ChalleNGe program on chopping block

Published 10:30 pm Thursday, February 12, 2009

A program that has helped more than 3,000 young people get a new start in life is in danger of being cut from the state budget.

Commonwealth ChalleNGe, a military-style educational program for at-risk teens ages 16 to 18, was recommended for deletion from the budget by the Senate Finance Committee. The move, if passed, will save the state about $1.1 million per year, but it will be devastating for Virginia youth, the program director said Thursday.

“I think the state of Virginia’s youth would be at a loss to get a second chance in life,” said Ret. U.S. Marine Corps Col. Thomas M. Early, the director of Commonwealth ChalleNGe. “There’s no other program that is like ours. There’s no suitable substitute.”

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Recent graduates of the program said when they graduated that the program made a difference in their life.

“It’s a great experience in my life,” said former Lakeland student Jon-Luc Young, when he graduated in December. “It was a long road, a hard road, and I endured it, so I feel happy about my accomplishment.”

His classmate, Christopher Colby, got his GED during the program. Another classmate, Justin Graham, said he will recommend the program to his friends.

Commonwealth ChalleNGe was founded in 1994, one year after the U.S. Congress authorized the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program.

The two-part program includes a 22-week residential phase, followed by a 12-month post-residential phase. During the residential portion, cadets participate in academic classes, community service and physical fitness testing, and they learn skills in life-coping, work, citizenship and leadership. Cadets must improve initial math and reading scores and identify goals – whether work, military service or continued education – for the post-residential phase in order to graduate.

In that second phase, cadets are paired with mentors who help them follow through with their life plans. The program is offered free of charge to participants, with funding coming from the state and the Department of Defense. The cost per student is about $14,000. About a dozen Suffolk students have graduated from the program in the last three classes.

Early said he remains hopeful that the recommendation to cut the program will be overturned. The motion still must survive several votes before it will go into effect. If it passes, the current class of 141 students would be the last Commonwealth ChalleNGe graduates, he said.

“We’re just waiting to see what the legislative process brings and get these 141 kids graduated – and hopefully have a next class.”