Freestate Challenge A Hard-Core Education
At Freestate Challenge Academy, At-Risk Teens Get New Start Through Discipline
Sunday, August 2, 2009
First of three articles.
The doggone eggshells were right there on the stairs going up to the third floor of Sgt. Leroy Pinckney's doggone building, and he was pretty mad about it.
He assembled the newly formed Squad 4 in a circle on the parched grass outside as he paced in the center, an ominous presence in his khaki boots and ball cap. "There is no food authorized in the barracks. Ever!" The boys in the squad looked stunned.
Freshly shorn of their hair, they stood in white T-shirts and gray shorts with the pockets sewn shut. "Doggone eggshells," Pinckney fumed. He ordered push-ups and leg lifts. "You will not stop till I say!" It was very hot, and one teen began throwing up. He'd be fine, the sergeant boomed. It was only stress. And, by the way, gentlemen: "Welcome to Freestate!"
So began the odyssey of about 170 at-risk teenagers from the District and Maryland who last month embarked of their own accord -- or that of their parents -- on an intensive five-month education program run by the National Guard.
Called the Freestate Challenge Academy, it is a quasi-military residential program operated with funding from Maryland and the District at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, northeast of Baltimore.
There, in a brick and cinder block building, male and female students get Army-style discipline while taking courses toward a high school equivalency degree. A one-year mentoring period follows.
They also get instruction in bed-making, hygiene, nutrition and anger management.
No cellphones or iPods are permitted, and there are no TVs. Flashy sneakers are forbidden. White low-tops with white socks are the rule. Pockets are sewn shut to keep students from putting their hands in them. Headgear consists of a blue mesh ball cap.
Men and women are strictly segregated. "If I ever see you gandering at the females, I'm going to smoke the whole lot of you," Pinckney warned Squad 4.
Sore Muscles, Deep Issues
The program is designed for students ages 16 to 19 who have dropped out of school, might be in minor trouble with the law or who simply need a second chance.
Some, such as Jamal DuCote-Peters, 17, of Northeast Washington, had stopped going to school mainly from lack of interest and motivation.